Conflict of interest, or comedy of errors?

It is therefore even more surprising and damning that history keeps repeating itself, with no end in sight. It seems that we never learn from our past mistakes, in what increasingly looks like a never-ending tragicomedy of errors

There are many things that democracies are expected to take for granted: almost to the point of not even needing any explanation, or justification.

For instance, it should stand to reason – in any country that is not a dictatorship, or a Banana Republic – that public officials serving in top positions in regulatory authorities, should not be allowed to conduct private work for the same people they have been entrusted to regulate.  

The reason for this is equally obvious; public trust in such authorities is automatically eroded by the sheer proximity of public officials who are on the pay-roll of the same people they are supposed to be monitoring (and whose ‘excesses’ they are meant to be curbing).

Unfortunately, however, it seems that Malta still struggles to understand the basic definition of the term ‘conflict of interest’: especially when it comes to appointments to Public Regulatory boards. 

The stop notice issued by the Building Construction Authority, with regard to demolition works being carried out by a company owned by construction magnate Joseph Portelli (on the site of the Go Exchange in Psaila Street, Birkirkara), has exposed one such blatant conflict of interest: which could easily have been avoided, long ago; and which has been repeatedly flagged by this newspaper, for some time.  

It turns out that the architect responsible for the works is Maria Schembri Grima: who also serves as the non-executive chairman of the BCA itself.

This makes it a case that borders on the absurd; and is certainly more symptomatic of a Banana Republic, than a modern democracy.   

Over the weekend, the BCA had to intervene to  stop the ongoing demolition of the former Go Exchange building: after boulders from the site spilled onto the street; and after the irregularities had been flagged and reported by residents to the  BCA: which is chaired by the architect of the self-same project.  


To make matters more bizarre still, the situation is further aggravated by the sheer sensitivity of Grima’s position. The whole purpose behind setting up the BCA, in 2021, was to put people’s mind at rest following a series of fatal construction accidents: including the 2020 Hamrun collapse, which cost the life of Miriam Pace.

The Authority itself was meant to be responsible for safeguarding third parties, and ensuring safe working practices in construction projects.  But the chairman chosen for this role, Maria Schembri Grima, continued her private practice as architect for major projects: including by construction magnates such as Joseph Portelli and Michael Stivala.  

It is clear, therefore, that - even if Grima actions were technically above board - her dual role, as both regulator and private architect, was eroding public trust in an authority that was specifically set up to ‘restore public trust in a broken system’.  

One major reason why public trust in regulatory authorities is broken – in this sector, more than most – is precisely because of a widespread perception that big developers like Portelli can ‘do whatever they want’.  

Such a perception can only be reinforced by the fact that the top guns of the industry are regularly hiring the BCA chairman herself, to represent them in a role which often sees Grima in conflict with residents opposing these projects.

As such, Grima herself should have had the common decency to turn down the appointment, if she intended to continue her private work.  But she is hardly the only one to blame, for this national embarrassment.  

The bulk of the fault lies squarely with the government, for not having made it clear to Grima -  back in 2021, before she was appointed - that she would have to choose between her private practice, and her public role.  

Moreover, the government can always avoid such blatant conflicts, a priori, by changing the law to make public appointments in regulatory authorities conditional on giving up any private practice, which may come into conflict with the new role.  In this case, any paid service in the construction sector should be precluded by law (though for obvious reasons, the salary offered should also reflect the implications of the choice).  

One would also have expected the authorities to learn from similar cases, which had undermined trust in the Planning Authority some time ago.  Back in 2008, deputy PA chairman, Catherine Galea - who had likewise served as architect for developer Charles Polidano, in an application for an ODZ supermarket - had been asked to resign: following a similarly botched construction project, which caused a road to collapse at Santa Maria Estate in Mellieħa.   

One of the most positive aspects of the MEPA reform, implemented by the Gonzi administration, was the appointment of full-time boards whose members were precluded from offering their services to private clients.  Although the system was not fool-proof, the reform at least avoided blatant cases of conflict of interest: such as, board members taking decisions which might affect their own past, present and (potentially) future clients.  

It is therefore even more surprising and damning that history keeps repeating itself, with no end in sight. It seems that we never learn from our past mistakes, in what increasingly looks like a never-ending tragicomedy of errors.