Joseph Muscat expressed interest in working for developers’ lobby president, court hears

MDA president Michael Stivala recounts discussions with the former prime minister about potential consultancy roles

Joseph Muscat at a Public Accounts Committee hearing
Joseph Muscat at a Public Accounts Committee hearing

Joseph Muscat had expressed an interest in working for Malta Development Association president Michael Stivala, after a third party recommended that the construction lobby boss meet with him, Stivala told a court on Thursday.

This emerged as Stivala took the witness stand in an ongoing libel case he filed against politician Arnold Cassola over several Facebook posts in which Cassola claimed Stivala had employed the disgraced former Prime Minister as a consultant, shortly after he stepped down from office, as payback for illegalities Muscat had “gifted” to the lobbyist in his time leading the government.

Stivala told Magistrate Rachel Montebello that his brother Carlo had unexpectedly resigned from the family business, leaving a gap in its senior leadership.

Although the group had not advertised the vacancy via conventional channels, Stivala said that he and other directors of the company had headhunted a number of individuals from the “big four” consulting firms and other high-level executives from the property and tourism industries.

Muscat, who had not been approached at that time, had been recommended to Stivala by a third party. After consulting with his siblings and fellow directors, a meeting with Muscat was set up.

“They told me to meet with him and see what he had in mind, we discussed how he was an economist and that he had an understanding of the property industry,” Stivala said.

“So we met at my office for the first time and we discussed what services we were looking for and what services he was able to provide. It lasted an hour, maybe an hour and a half and we agreed we would think about it and speak again at another time.”

The witness said that this was his first ever one-to-one meeting with Muscat, their previous meetings having all been related to Stivala’s roles in the MHRA and the MDA.

A number of phone conversations between him and Muscat followed that introductory meeting, during which Muscat had expressed interest in working for Stivala. A second meeting was then set up.

Cross-examined by Cassola’s lawyer, Matthew Cutajar, Stivala explained that he had taken exception to Cassola’s social media claims, and not to news reports about his hiring of Muscat, because the news articles had not accused him of corruption, but Cassola had.

The company’s decision to file the libel case had been taken in a bid to avoid “adverse media” and protect its reputation with its shareholders and investors.

The lawyer pointed to several international news reports from 2019, about Joseph Muscat being named as the Organized Crime & Corruption Reporting Project’s  “corrupt person of the year.” He asked whether this adverse media had also bothered him. Stivala replied that it hadn’t.

“The board carried out its due diligence, we looked thoroughly at whether Dr Muscat was being accused of something concrete and it resulted that he was not and he passed the due diligence.”

“So these articles from various global news outlets did not bother you in how they could be perceived by your investors but the four lines written by Professor Cassola on Facebook did?” Cutajar asked the lawyer.

Stivala insisted that this was because only Cassola’s posts had directly accused him of corruption with regards to Joseph Muscat.

The sitting was adjourned to April 22.

Lawyers Michael Cutajar and Eve Borg Costanzi are assisting Cassola. Lawyer Vince Galea appeared for Stivala.