Nationalist MEP Simon Busuttil. Photo: Ray Attard/Mediatoday
Nationalist MEP Simon Busuttil has revealed that it was a casual conversation between himself and Labour leader Joseph Muscat - who at the time was still an MEP - that led the PN to suspect a Labour campaign targeting Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando over a proposed development in Mistra, shortly before the 2008 election.
"I can confirm that I was the person with whom Joseph Muscat spoke," Busuttil said yesterday in a text message reply to questions sent by this newspaper. "The information he disclosed was more than enough for me to easily conclude that JPO was the PL target. I immediately passed on this info to my secretary general, Joe Saliba."
Saliba in turn had alluded to this fact - without mentioning the name of the PN official involved - in an interview shortly after the same election. From this same interview it emerges that the conversation had taken place after the two MEPs had already crossed swords publicly, in a televised debate organised by the Broadcasting Authority: in which Muscat had publicly hinted at a possible smear campaign targeting an unnamed PN candidate.
The subsequent conversation is in fact understood to have taken place on board a flight from Malta to Brussels, where the two MEPs would often sit next to each other.
By revealing these details, Busuttil has effectively ended more than four years of public speculation regarding how the PN first got wind of the Labour Party's plans to build part of its campaign around the inauspiciously-named 'Spin Valley' discotheque... for which a MEPA application had been filed on land owned by Pullicino Orlando, in the ecologically sensitive Mistra valley.
The contract for this disco had featured prominently in the dying days of the election campaign, and is widely believed to have both reversed Labour's chances of victory, as well as catapulted Pullicino Orlando himself into parliament with over 5,000 votes from two districts.
After alluding to its existence for several days without supplying any proof, Labour leader Alfred Sant finally made public the contract - signed by Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando - during the final debate between the party leaders on the eve of the so-called 'day of reflection' before the election.
His timing was however less than perfect: owing to a ban on publication of political stories on the day of reflection, no media carried the story of the Mistra contract, which was therefore lost amid the electoral fever of a particularly tense campaign.
In the wake of the political crisis that culminated in Pullicino Orlando's resignation from the PN earlier this month, both parties have traded blows regarding their respective roles in the Mistra affair, in what appears to be an attempt to dissociate themselves from the same scandal, while tarnishing each other with involvement in the same issue.
Labour insists that the contract had originally been leaked by a PN official - a claim vehemently denied by the PN.
Last week, the Nationalist Party returned fire by claiming that it was in fact Joseph Muscat who had inadvertently alerted the PN to the fact that it knew about the Mistra contract.
Busuttil's confirmation yesterday appears to shed light on this latter claim: but a spokesman for Joseph Muscat dismissed Busuttil's version of the facts as erroneous... though he did not the deny that the conversation took place
"Whatever Joseph Muscat said to Simon Busuttil had already been publicly stated on record before, in front of the whole Maltese public, during the televised debate."
The spokesman added that Muscat "categorically denied having mentioned Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando, or anyone else, by name, or alluded to the Mistra affair in any way."