Strickland Foundation must come clean

Robert Hornyold-Strickland • My concerns over dividend payments in excess of €2.5 million have very surprisingly received no response from the Allied Newspapers board of directors

26 April 2016, 9:31am
Robert Hornyold Strickland
Robert Hornyold Strickland
By Robert Hornyold-Strickland

I was astounded to read that Mario de Marco has stated emphatically that he had no direct interest in Allied Newspapers Ltd, when he could instead have confirmed that he has, unquestionably, an indirect interest in the Times of Malta. It is a fact he was elected onto the Strickland Foundation (SF) in 2009, supported by his late father and three other council members.

Since the Foundation is currently registered (only since 2010) as the majority shareholder in Allied Newspapers Ltd, and Mario de Marco is unquestionably the prime mover on the Strickland Foundation’s council, as was his father before him, it is evident that this gives him an interest in Allied Newspapers Ltd and the Times of Malta.

Most people know Adrian Hillman is a good friend of Mario de Marco and it was through this association that he was originally introduced to Allied Newspapers. Hillman was then elected, initially, to the Allied board and then promoted to managing director. Hillman’s friendship with de Marco was so close that they were best men at each other’s weddings. Hillman even held his wedding reception at my home, Villa Parisio in Lija, completely without my knowledge or approval, yet courtesy of the Foundation where Mario de Marco’s father, Prof. Guido de Marco, was the key council member.

In 1978, following my exile from Malta (ordered for no valid reason by the government of the day), Guido de Marco was given my aunt’s power of attorney, which he exercised extensively after she suffered a heart attack in 1979 following the Black Monday burning of the newspapers’ offices. As her new legal adviser, de Marco, aware that I, as the sole heir, could not be at my aunt’s side, drafted the revised will in August 1979 (on his own admission).

This was accompanied by the constitution of the new Strickland Foundation, which was then set up, as my aunt stated clearly, “for herself and her heirs in perpetuity”, replacing the contingent trust set out in her earlier will – which was thought to be needed to protect The Times from being nationalised at the time.

After this, de Marco was asked, by my aunt, to meet me in London a month later to advise me of these changes but he never actually came to see me, leaving me totally unaware of these changes for the next 10 years. Under the terms of this revised 1979 will, upon Mabel’s death, de Marco and Prof. Joseph Ganado became her two executors. The residuary executor of my aunt’s estate, as detailed in her will, is I.

Under the Foundation’s constitution, the executors were also named as SF council members, in what seems a total conflict of interest, from the outset, since the SF was now to be the major beneficiary of her estate. The two executors held positions on this council, along with a representative of each of the Allied Newspapers editorial and management staff, together with one independent businessman and, of course, my aunt herself.

Court cases against Strickland Foundation

All legal and administrative files and instructions relating to the setting up of the Foundation and the revised will, have been hidden by De Marco and Associates, since my aunt’s death; they refuse, point blank, to hand these important files to me, their rightful owner, thus necessitating a lengthy and costly court case just to establish the correct ownership of the assets and to properly define her legacies; this alone prevents me from having any equality of arms in my court cases.

Upon my aunt’s death in 1988, the Executors immediately arranged for Mabel’s total shareholding in Allied Newspapers (92%) to be registered in their own personal names (on behalf of the estate) until passing a smaller, 13.3% shareholding onto me once I had paid sizeable death duties due on her estate in 1998.

From 1988 to the present day, the Strickland Foundation (controlled, in the main, by the executors or their sons) has decided all appointments on the Allied board, all major business decisions and the dividend policy. The Allied board, in turn, decides all senior editorial appointments and has an indirect influence on editorial policy.

In 2009, although the SF council was already fully represented on the Allied board by Ronnie Agius, it insisted on electing the two executors, Guido de Marco and Joseph Ganado, directly onto the board as well. This was done despite the objection of all the other minority shareholders at the meeting.

Then, the SF council (consisting only of the same executors, Ronnie Agius and Frank Bonello) saw elected the executors’ two sons, Mario de Marco and Max Ganado onto the council, ensuring their continued family control of the newspaper group for another generation. Does this not suggest their overriding desire for control of the group?

Yet, despite the SF having been set up for Miss Strickland “and her heirs in perpetuity”, I as her Strickland heir am continuously blocked from joining the SF council, even though I now live in Malta and am a Maltese citizen.

Although my aunt left two important bequests to the SF, Guido de Marco and Joseph Ganado put the SF in possession of these bequests by stealth, entirely without the knowledge or approval of the heir, and more importantly without agreeing with him the extent or validity of the bequests, which now seem questionable. Their behaviour has led directly to my two court actions.

In 2010, I exercised my only option to file a court action against the executors to challenge their unacceptable interpretation of my aunt’s will. Two weeks later, the executors transferred Allied’s majority shareholding, held in their personal names as executors, to the SF itself. This irregular share transfer, done entirely without my knowledge, or approval as heir, is also the subject of another court action, on a point of law, seeking its reversal. 

Since Guido de Marco died in 2010, and Joseph Ganado resigned as executor in 2014, the Court recently confirmed that any remaining executor’s duties would be carried out by me, as required by my aunt’s will. Max Ganado also resigned as an SF council member in 2014.

Despite their resignations, the Ganados refuse to hand over to the heir all the files relating to the administration of the executorship, and despite a court order requiring them to provide such original documentation. This evidence, required to corroborate the executor’s final administration accounts submitted to the courts, appears to be materially incomplete with only a few carefully chosen photocopies so far having been provided to me in recent months. No original documentation has been provided.

Villa Parisio debacle

The executors gave the SF possession of my aunt’s historic home. It proceeded to make the villa virtually uninhabitable for me and my family by removing most of the sanitary ware and bedroom furniture shortly after my aunt’s death. In the many conversations I had with my Aunt Mabel when I lived with her at Villa Parisio in the late 1970s, she made it very clear to me how she wished me to continue living in the Villa with its maintenance to be paid for by the trust (later replaced by the Foundation).

The executors had other ideas. They used a family home, that I alone was given the right to live in, for their own private entertainment and functions, trying to turn it into a conference venue, for which it was never intended. In short, they were competing directly with me, in trying to drive me out of my family home.

Merely for living in this home, the SF try to accuse me of interfering with the work of the Foundation, which I have never done. All this could be avoided so easily were the Foundation to apply common sense and decency towards Mabel’s heir and invoke the right she gave her Foundation to “transfer its seat to any other such place in Malta as they think fit”.

This abuse of our right to privacy in our home has been carried out by the very people entrusted by my aunt to uphold human rights as part of their charter; it is noticeable that this entire story has been suppressed by the Times of Malta.

€2.5 million in dividends

The reason for this behaviour is only now becoming clear. Photocopies given to me of parts of the Executors’ files have shown substantial and surprising irregularities. Part of the answer would seem to lie in the executors, and later the SF Council’s, determination to control, in the most arcane and undemocratic manner, this Foundation.

While it is not yet required by law, it is of great concern to me that the Strickland Foundation does not publish its accounts with full transparency since to me a Foundation that does not do so is as inappropriate as any group of people holding offshore accounts in Panama or the BVI.

Of more concern to me is that this control has allowed the executors (who were also SF council members and, for some of the time, directors of Allied) to arrange for the managing director of Allied to pay dividends from 1998 until 2010 not to the majority registered shareholder, which was the “Executors of Mabel Strickland’s Estate”, but instead directly to the Strickland Foundation, which was not even a shareholder.

These dividend payments total in excess of €2.5 million in that period and, although I brought this important matter to the attention of the Allied board and to Adrian Hillman last year, and repeated my concerns again this year, I have very surprisingly received no response, to date. I have received no further assistance in clarifying or confirming the figures, and no evidence has been produced to show that these transfers were even authorised by the executors.

Furthermore, despite requests, no written explanation of these unfolding scandals has been provided by the management to the minority family shareholders thus far.

I am furious that my aunt’s legacy appears to have been so wilfully diverted. 

The victims in this story are all of us: Allied’s employees and journalists, whom Mabel wished to support; the people of Malta because issues of national importance and readers’ own views appear not to have been always properly reported; and lastly myself as the thwarted heir to my aunt’s legacy. I know I could contribute so much more to her company and Foundation in Malta, and I know, from my many conversations with her, that she wished me to do so.

Robert Hornyold-Strickland is Allied Newspapers’ second largest individual shareholder