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[WATCH] Lands Authority chief was chosen over more qualified candidates, PN MP claims

Parliamentary secretary Deborah Schembri insists Lands Authority leaders were selected on merit, not because of their links to Labour

tim_diacono
Tim Diacono
16 February 2017, 11:00pm
Deborah Schembri and Ryan Callus on Thursday night's edition of Xtra
Deborah Schembri and Ryan Callus on Thursday night's edition of Xtra
Opposition MP Ryan Callus has hit out at the government’s choice of Carlo Mifsud – a former PL candidate - as chief executive of the new Lands Authority, claiming that he was selected over more qualified candidates. 

“Two fully experienced directors, who had been working at the Lands Department for several years and neither of whom are close to the PN, had applied for the position of CEO but were somehow overlooked in favour of someone who had never worked there,” Callus said on Thursday night’s edition of Xtra. 

However, parliamentary secretary for planning Deborah Schembri insisted that Mifsud’s appointment had nothing to do with his political history, and that he was nominated by an independent panel solely on the basis of his merits.

“I don’t look at people’s political colours, but rather at their competencies and credentials. We’d have problems if we were to start choosing people because of their political links.

“First the Opposition insists that people must be chosen by a call, and then it complains when an independent board makes its choices. For [Callus], it seems that you have to be a Nationalist to be considered worthy of a post.

The board of governors, which was launched earlier this month, also includes retired judge Lino Farrugia Sacco as chairperson.

Farrugia Sacco was twice recommended for impeachment after the Commission for the Administration of Justice found him guilty of gross misconduct while president of the Malta Olympic Committee. 

Farrugia Sacco, father of Labour candidate David Farrugia Sacco, only escaped impeachment because he reached retirement age before parliamentary proceedings could begin and after the Labour government did not present a new impeachment motion. 

Carlo Mifsud and Lino Farrugia Sacco (first two from left) are the CEO and chairperson of the new Lands Authority. Photo: James Bianchi
Carlo Mifsud and Lino Farrugia Sacco (first two from left) are the CEO and chairperson of the new Lands Authority. Photo: James Bianchi
Callus warned that his appointment was a mistake, but Schembri dismissed concerns by host Saviour Balzan that she was inviting trouble by selecting the retired judge. 

“I don’t discard anyone, and all I care about is people’s competencies. Farrugia Sacco was a very efficient judge.”

‘Politicians should not interfere in Lands Authority’ 

Schembri said that the reform of the Lands Authority was based on the government’s belief that politicians should stay away from decisions taken there as much as possible.

Quizzed by Balzan on whether she will assume political responsibility for decisions taken by Farrugia Sacco, Schembri argued that “a difference exists between political responsibility and responsibility full stop”.

“I will maintain ministerial responsibilities as do my other colleagues, but I don’t want politicians interfering in individual cases,” she said. 

Indeed, the Lands Authority was announced in the wake of the Strada Zekka scandal, which saw Schembri’s predecessor Michael Falzon get the sack for signing the expropriations for two quarters of a Valletta palazzo from property developer Mark Gaffarena. The planning minister is now no longer responsible for giving the final stamp of approval on decisions, with his/her role now limited to giving strategic direction.

Schembri said that the system at the old Lands Department was heavily faulty, arguing that it hindered staff from carrying out their work transparently. The Lands Authority’s processes will now be fully digitized and it will use international methodologies to determine the evaluation of land. The Authority will be obliged to keep an audit trail of all its decisions, and an auditor will be tasked with scrutinizing all deals involving government land worth over €100,000.

Xtra is hosted by MediaToday managing editor Saviour Balzan. Photo: James Bianchi
Xtra is hosted by MediaToday managing editor Saviour Balzan. Photo: James Bianchi
However, Callus warned that previous lands scandals – such as Strada Zekka – were not the result of administrative flaws, but of political interference from Castille. 

“Eight out of the nine people on the board of governors will be directly appointed by government, which means that it won’t be independent and that the problem of political interference won’t be addressed,” he said. “Indeed, the Opposition rejected the government’s request to nominate a person to the board of governors, because it doesn’t want to have anything to do with scandals yet to come.”

“There is always room for improvement in the system, but there are some land valuations that are so obviously flawed that they raise questions of corruption. For example, the minister [Michael Falzon] should have realized that there was something wrong about expropriating half a house before signing the deal.”

tim_diacono
Tim Diacono is a journalist at MaltaToday
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