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Fighting for my rightful inheritance: 24 years of harassment and intimidation
Mabel Strickland's heir's stunning personal account of his attempt to gain rightful representation on the Strickland Foundation, which he says is controlled by the Ganado and De Marco families.
20 March 2013, 12:00am
By Robert Hornyold-Strickland
Now that the elections are finally over and the last of the mud-slinging between the party candidates has happened, I thought it time to comment about my experiences in Malta since I first came to live here in 1977 as an Anglo-Maltese man with a proud and distinguished family history both in Malta and overseas.
Since I live in Malta but was not eligible to vote in this general election, I did not want to comment earlier for fear of being accused of disturbing any local political process, which I had no wish to do. However, the electorate has now given its verdict that it wants change in a big way. It was very clear throughout the campaign that corruption and intrigue by some of the Nationalist administration over the past decades unfortunately outweighed all of the positive economic benefits caused by the significant EU investment into Malta since 2004 and the good things that the last administration did for Malta. There were also many negative words spoken about dissatisfaction with the previous administration. My own experience seems to have mirrored some of the electorate in that it is concrete actions and deeds that matter far more than promises and empty words.
In my case, since originally arriving to live in Malta 36 years ago, I have been on the receiving end of an unexplained and deplorable lack of respect, harassment of my family and infringements of our fundamental human rights to live peacefully in our home in Malta. I have been appalled by this situation, given that my family and I put our complete trust in these professionals from the moment my aunt, Mabel Strickland, died. Luckily I have received enormous support from friends and family in Malta and abroad and from the wider Maltese public who are convinced that the truth now needs to come out.
In 1977 when I, Robert Strickland, first came to live in Malta, I was a young man in my early 20s. I came to help my great aunt Mabel Strickland who was Maltese and had lived in Malta most of her life. Her father, my great grandfather, Lord Strickland, had been a Colonial Governor in Australia and elsewhere before retiring to the land of his birth and becoming Prime Minister of Malta (in coalition with the Labour Party) between the wars, as well as an MP in England at the same time. Mabel was also active in politics and in business and she was very proud of the family's contribution to life in Malta which included the Phoenicia Hotel, the Xara Place Hotel, St Edward's College and Allied Newspapers (publishers of the Times and Sunday Times) which she founded with her father in 1935.
I was very proud to see what she had done in her lifetime and she hoped that I would be able to play my part in the future given that she had just made me her sole and universal heir in order to continue her Strickland family legacy in Malta.
Although I was training to be a chartered accountant in London, I had nevertheless moved out to live in Malta with Mabel and to learn about her life, her businesses and to help her in whatever way I could. We had an excellent rapport and discussed all of her businesses and financial concerns quite openly between us. At the same time, as many of the older generation in Malta know, Mabel also tried to adopt me as her son given that she had never married and had no children of her own. However Mabel's attempts to adopt me were blocked by politically motivated moves involving a retrospective change to the laws of Malta and even a change to Malta's Constitution.
The blocked adoption was a big setback for my aunt but she responded by confirming her earlier will and showing that she would not be intimidated. However the Government reacted to Mabel's stoicism by banning me from Malta in 1978 because the Government believed that I had married my aunt - even though they had found no evidence to confirm this. Of course this had never happened - although my aunt had once jokingly said that she might do so if she was not allowed to adopt me! Indeed it was only in 2012 that I was first able to view this file on the matter at Police Headquarters.
With me out of the country (and my aunt being now rather elderly and isolated) my aunt's new legal adviser, the late Prof. Guido de Marco, helped in advising my aunt to change her will in 1979 and by his own admission drafted the will to "give it legal character" in such a way that the majority of her estate was then left to a new Foundation called the Strickland Foundation, on whose counsel the two executors (Prof. Guido de Marco and Prof. Joseph Ganado) sat.
The balance of the estate was left to me, as her heir, along with her debts and a very significant succession duty liability which I paid at enormous personal cost. Surprisingly the Executors have still not settled my aunt's estate after 24 long years. Could this be, in part, due to the apparent major conflicts of interest involved?
Mabel's two main aims in relation to her succession were to protect her newspaper group as a free and independent press and to transfer her interest to me - her chosen Strickland heir. When she changed her Will in 1979 she also set up the Strickland Foundation (which was based upon an earlier 1975 Trust set up for my benefit). She then sent her legal adviser to the UK (where I was earning my living having been banned from Malta) to advise me of these developments. However, Prof. de Marco did not visit me to explain these changes when he was in London, and so I was still unaware of these changes (even though I was her heir) when she died.
In retrospect, I am not sure whether to describe these changes as the result of the "Politics of Persuasion" or the "Politics of Evasion". Both seem equally relevant.
The threats Mabel faced at this time in Malta were very real. They were evidenced by the burning of the Times building only two months after she changed her will and when I was, sadly, unable to be by her side in Malta and when communications between us were made difficult. Mabel at this time was already quite ill and very frail. She nearly died after this incident and remained in very poor health for the last nine years of her life during which time Prof. de Marco exercised her power of attorney since I was not able to be with her.
Mabel Strickland's controlling shareholding in Allied was held thereafter by the executors and only transferred to her Strickland Foundation some 20 years after her death. This appears to have been done only once the Executors (together with their newly appointed descendants as well) were in voting control of the Foundation.
Today Allied Newspapers Ltd is controlled by the Strickland Foundation which, in turn, appears to be controlled by the Ganado and de Marco families and no member of the Strickland family, let alone her heir, is represented on the Council of the Strickland Foundation. I cannot understand how this has come about although I remain a minority shareholder of Allied Newspapers Ltd. The current ownership is completely at odds with her stated wishes for her heir as well as the aims of the Strickland Foundation which includes "to promote in Malta democratic principles, the observance of human rights and the exercise of a free and independent press".
Whilst I believe that the Times and Sunday Times are excellent papers, many people I come into contact with seem to believe that the executors and their families may have benefited indirectly from contracts and preferential media coverage over the last few years because of their position on the Strickland Foundation.
Neither the executors nor their families were actually listed as beneficiaries in my aunt's Will and the reason Mabel chose me, Robert Strickland, to be her heir was to continue the family involvement in her businesses after her time. Instead I have been blocked by her executors, from joining the Board of Allied with no valid reason given. I have not been invited to join the Strickland Foundation since her death even when both of the executors' sons were voted on to it.
Indeed ever since my Aunt's death there has been no Strickland on the Strickland Foundation (especially not Mabel's chosen heir). This is totally at odds with her well known and publicly stated wishes. In effect it appears my aunt's executors have been competing with me for her estate.
As if this were not enough, Mabel's new will gave her home, Villa Parisio, in ownership to the same Strickland Foundation, with myself and my family only having rights of use and habitation there. Clearly, since I was temporarily banned from Malta when the will was revised in 1979, then it stands to reason that my aunt would want to protect her family home for her heir to live in when he could return - as duly happened eight years later in 1987.
Regrettably, however, my family and I have been continually harassed in our own home for 24 years as it appears some would prefer us to move elsewhere. 24 hour CCTV cameras in house monitor our every move. Why is this when the Executors are duty bound to behave in a "bonus pater familias" manner towards the heir? Furthermore this harassment in our home has got noticeably worse in the last six months when the Strickland Foundation has suddenly started a new initiatives having been relatively inactive for the last 20 years.
I should explain that, categorically, in the very first article of the Strickland Foundation statute, my aunt nominated the Villa (which Mabel and I shared when I was living in Malta) as the initial seat of the Strickland Foundation but she qualified this, in the same sentence, by saying that the Council of the Foundation had the right "to transfer the seat to such other place" as it saw fit. Mabel clearly envisaged me being able to return to Malta when the Government permitted this and I have many letters from her stating this.
Although my family and I now live in the Villa, the fact that the Council members have chosen not to move their administration office to any other location, and chose to constantly intrude on the family's privacy (quite needlessly), only goes to confirm their resolve to compete with the heir and to ignore my aunt's wishes. What other Maltese family would put up with this situation in their own home?
Furthermore, it is not at all clear whether it was ever explained to my aunt that by giving her heir "rights of use and habitation" this only conferred a lifetime gift and not a perpetual right for the family to inhabit the Villa. That the Executors and their representatives at the Foundation have deliberately stopped my family being able to enjoy our rights in privacy for the last 24 years is iniquitous. Instead they have tried to use the Villa as a conference venue and a private and elite dining club with no consideration whatsoever for the Strickland family's privacy in a home.
The Villa also contains much of the Strickland family possessions such as portraits and family records going back many generations which I had previously understood my Aunt wished to leave to me. Since her death, the executors have consistently denied me access to all of her personal diaries, correspondence and family records which is rather surprising since they supposedly belong to an heir. This includes all correspondence and instructions relating to her Wills. Why would they want to withhold this information? They have also withheld a number of other important legacies which are now the subject to a Court Case and so cannot be discussed here.
Over the years I have made many attempts to reach an amicable solution with the Executors but all have been blocked with little serious discussion to find a negotiated settlement. Arbitration was also refused summarily. Instead I have received over 24 years of harassment aimed at myself and my family and more recently two threatening letters making me believe that the 'Powers of Persuasion' do not involve dialogue. Can this be right?
If these people are serious about maintaining the highest political or commercial positions in the land then some might say they could start showing some qualities of leadership which appear to have been seriously lacking in this affair to date. However I do not agree with their way of thinking and behaviour to date and therefore I will be filing an additional Court Case in the near future in a further attempt to bring justice to this situation. I am disclosing this matter now as I believe it to be a matter of public interest now and need to put a stop to this campaign of fear and intimidation against my family.
Is it just possible that the "retirement" of the Chairman of the Strickland Foundation (announced in the last few days) is an opportunity for the Strickland Foundation Council to demonstrate new leadership skills and rectify matters? However based on past actions this may only happen when they are implored to do so.
The caution I would give to anyone expecting to inherit from a loved one or elderly relative is to stay close by that person's side in their declining years. In my case sadly the subtle fine tuning of the Statute and Rules governing the Strickland Foundation (as opposed to the much clearer trust that had previously existed) brought about the exact opposite of what my Aunt had originally intended.
Mabel wanted her paper to be free of any political pressure groups and yet ironically that is exactly what has happened, unwittingly even before her death, whilst she was trying to prevent her Newspapers from being swallowed up by the State.
She set up the Foundation to promote democracy, better links with the EU and the Commonwealth and uphold the principles of a free press and yet her nephew and heir has never been included in a Foundation that bears their family name. However the Statute and Rules of the Strickland Foundation have unfortunately been frequently ignored as have EU and local regulations.
Many also believe that there has been selective censorship in their Press. Is this really what Mabel Strickland wanted? In the revised documents of 1979 the Foundation was not only given total control of the newspaper group but also the lion's share of the income deriving from its dividends. In this way the Executors and their appointees (and now also their sons) have control of Mabel's principal business assets. Is this really democratic or transparent?
Others have commented on the parallels with Berlusconi. But the difference is that Berlusconi worked for most of his life to create his media empire which aided and abetted his political ambitions and he also risked his own money to create it whereas the people who have taken control of the Strickland family media Group, following my Aunt's demise, have invested nothing. They dictate the policy of the group and administer the revenues therefrom without ever actually appearing as a beneficiary in my Aunt's Will. They have even got keys to her heir's home and have no qualms whatsoever in attempting to harass him there too.
I am very disappointed that Mabel's wishes have been so comprehensively ignored and frustrated here in Malta given that she was such a prominent and well respected lady who had given virtually all of her life to looking after her employees, trying to help the people of Malta and looking after her family's future. Mabel was known for "refusing no one".
Leadership has been shown on the national stage only this week by the new prime minister extending an invitation to the leader of the opposition to join him at the new Popes inaugural mass. Hopefully this new political outlook will inspire others to review my situation, shed some light on it and bring some long overdue justice to this whole unfortunate affair. More importantly, lessons need to be learned for the future about serious conflicts of interest and the repercussions of them.