Joseph Muscat denies Stivala iced bun allegation in court

Former prime minister Joseph Muscat testifies in libel case filed by developer Michael Stivala against independent candidate Arnold Cassola

Developer Michael Stivala (left) hired Joseph Muscat as a consultant after the latter stepped down from prime minister
Developer Michael Stivala (left) hired Joseph Muscat as a consultant after the latter stepped down from prime minister

Joseph Muscat has categorically denied “giving anything” to property tycoon and developers’ chief Michael Stivala during his premiership.

When testifying in court on Monday in libel proceedings that Stivala instituted against independent candidate Arnold Cassola, the former prime minister said he was “not aware of any legal impediments” to his consultancy work for the developer.

The case is being heard by Magistrate Rachel Montebello.

The libel suit concerns a number of Facebook posts in which Cassola described Stivala as having been “gifted various illegalities” under the Muscat premiership. One post, titled “Robert Abela: lying about Joseph Muscat,” states that “Muscat got his ‘so-called consultancies’ from Accutor and Stivala in 2020, soon after his resignation.” A subsequent Facebook post by Cassola spoke of “Joseph Muscat’s payback time… Consultant with Stivala.”

In November 2022, Stivala had confirmed that he had employed Muscat as a consultant, just months after the latter resigned as prime minister.

Lawyer Vince Galea, appearing for Stivala, read out parts of the impugned social media posts relating to “payback time” and “so-called consultancies,” asking Muscat what he had to say about them.

Muscat told the court that he had been Malta’s prime minister from 11 March 2013 until 13 January 2020.

He had stepped down in the midst of protests against high-level government corruption organised by civil society activists, who accuse him of having protected people linked to the 2017 murder of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia.

Muscat has always denied wrongdoing and was never charged, only being questioned by the police investigating the murder in 2020.

Taking to the witness stand, Muscat explained how he came to know Stivala. “I had met Mr Stivala when I was Opposition leader, in his capacity as a council member of the MDA,” Muscat said, describing the plaintiff as “very active in the MDA.”

“I never met with him alone,” Muscat went on. “He struck me as one of the people who never maligned others behind their backs.”

Muscat said he and Stivala had disagreements “which weren’t minor” on rent reform and government lands, but insisted that “despite these tensions there was enormous respect on both sides.”

“A few months after the end of my premiership, Mr Stivala had approached me and explained that a number of changes were happening in his companies; one of the companies was breaking away, his father had died, his brothers were more focused on construction, while he would deal with executive decisions.”

At the time, he said, Stivala was not being challenged at executive management level and so had wanted someone who would “tell it how it is and challenge his ideas.”

Muscat’s advice to Stivala branched out into financing, business and forecasting, “especially in the tourism sector,” he said.

Galea asked the witness to expand on whether his contract with Stivala was “fake”.

“Neither of us have time to waste,” Muscat replied. “There is work involving opportunities with people who want to do business with him [Stivala] and we assess them, taking into account the family relationships,” he said, explaining the impact of multi million euro deals involving the group. Muscat also advised Stivala on real estate and financing issues, as well as alternative sources of financing.

The court asked where they would hold their meetings. “We meet at Stivala’s office in Gzira, at the Bayview Hotel,” Muscat replied, “once or twice a week.”

“Everyone sees me go in, everyone knows my car. I enter the building through the reception and go upstairs. I speak to the people at the office and spend hours working there,” Muscat said.

Galea cited examples of favours mentioned by Cassola in his Facebook posts, amongst them Stivala’s dumping of construction dust at Balluta Bay, which Muscat denied.

“In such cases, as prime minister, I would never involve myself… I am informed that rather than nothing happening, the ERA had imposed a fine on Stivala. They took action. Not because I told them.”

The lawyer moved on to the claims about the ST tower in Gzira. Cassola had alleged that the high-rise policy had been changed to allow Stivala to construct a 15-storey tower in Gzira, despite it having been recommended for refusal by the Planning Authority. “By twisting the policies, he succeeded in building [them],” Galea read out.

Muscat told the court that the policies had been introduced to control a hitherto unregulated issue. “The high-rise policy restricted the areas where high rise buildings could be built in Malta,” he said. “Before it, in truth, high rise buildings could be built anywhere.”

Muscat insisted there was no twisting of policies.

The lawyer moved on to another post, which quoted a news article reporting that Stivala’s company had received an amnesty for unpaid utility bills.

Muscat said that it wasn’t the first time that such an amnesty had taken place, telling the court that a similar amnesty had been granted many years ago by Austin Gatt.

“Hundreds applied [for the latter amnesty]. I was not informed that Mr Stivala had applied to regularise his position about submeters. “He had paid a million euro, so I don’t think it was much of a favour. He paid a substantial amount,” Muscat said.

Galea presented Muscat with Cassola’s assertion that he was prohibited from taking up private employment after leaving office.

“I am not a lawyer. I am not aware of any law preventing a prime minister from taking up private employment after the end of his tenure. My predecessors also did the same. I am not aware of any legal impediment.”

Answering another question from his lawyer, Muscat denied the allegation of an iced bun with the construction magnate. “I don’t know what Professor Cassola said when he testified, but I did not give him [Stivala] anything. Nothing that he didn’t deserve and nothing that he deserved because I did not give him anything.”

His testimony over, Muscat stepped off the stand and immediately left the courtroom, together with his security entourage.

The case was adjourned to September for Stivala’s final witnesses.

Lawyer Vincent Galea is assisting Stivala.

Lawyers Eve Borg Costanzi and Matthew Cutajar appeared for Cassola.