Education Minister's former aide allegedly wanted €30,000 cash bribe

Edward Caruana had allegedly sought a cash award from contractor Giovann Vella over Gozo sixth form works • Caruana is facing charges of corruption, fraud, falsification of documents and bribery

A PN banner poked fun at Education Minister Evarist Bartolo after his aide Edward Caruana was accused of bribery over the construction of government schools
A PN banner poked fun at Education Minister Evarist Bartolo after his aide Edward Caruana was accused of bribery over the construction of government schools

Edward Caruana, the former aide to Education Minister Evarist Bartolo who is facing corruption allegations, sought cash awards from contractor Giovann Vella, a court head yesterday.

Vella was the successful bidder for a tender for works at the Victoria sixth form extension.

The Gozitan contractor testified yesterday in criminal proceedings against Caruana, who is charged with corruption and fraud while acting as an official of the government’s school-building agency, the Foundation for Tomorrow’s Schools.

The prosecution asked the court to issue a freezing order on Caruana’s assets.

Back in December, Caruana pleaded not guilty to charges that he demanded payments from suppliers of the FTS, where he was procurement officer to facilitate outstanding payments. He was also charged with extortion, trading in influence and use of falsified documents.

The charges come a year after MaltaToday first reported in November 2016 that the former chief executive of the FTS, Philip Rizzo, had alleged corruption in the issuing of direct orders for the renovation of government schools.

The witness recalled how having won the €540,000 tender lawfully, he had been somewhat annoyed by Caruana’s words over the phone.

“He obviously meant that I owed him something. I don’t owe him anything,” the witness said.

Caruana repeatedly called the witness - up to 77 times.

On one occasion, Caruana had told Vella to speak to the contractor who had placed second in the tendering process so that he might take over the works at the Victoria sixth form.

At a meeting, the other contractor even offered Vella €5,000 so that he could renounce to the tender.

Vella had ignored the offer and continued with the project, forking out some €100,000 by way of a pre-financing and a performance guarantees before having even commenced the works.

He also recalled a meeting at the Contracts Department during which he was questioned over alleged delays, a fact which Vella strongly denied pointing out that dredging works amounting to some 30% of the whole project were on track.

“Someone must have supplied the department wrong information,” the witness said in court.

One day, Caruana had called the contractor asking him for €30,000 to facilitate government payments to Vella on the project. “I’m as powerful as the minister and unless you hand over the money, you won’t receive any payments,” the former aide had demanded, further threatening to “send his men” to seek out Vella.

Caruana had also suggested that he could instruct Robert Ciantar, the project’s quality surveyor, to inflate measurements and bills so that Vella might get his money and move out of the picture.

Vella still proceeded with the job, when he was summoned to a meeting at the Contracts Department. Expecting this to be a progress report meeting, the witness recalled how he was stunned when the director of contracts, Tony Cachia, asked if he was going to renounce to the tender.

As the building works continued, Vella received a call from a supplier who told him that he could supply cement for the project, thus returning a favour towards Caruana.

Vella refused, pointing that he would only consider the offer if the price was favourable.

In August 2015, Vella once again received a call from Caruana telling him that he intended to pay him a visit during his stay in Gozo.

The witness recalled how Caruana and his wife had been invited to a BBQ at the Vella residence. Walking into the house, the guest had pulled his host aside asking to have a word in private.

Caruana soon turned the conversation to the pending issue between the two men. “What about those €30,000?” Caruana had asked. “I haven’t got that money,” Vella had replied.

Vella was surprised when the other man replied “Ok. As you wish.”

After that evening, the building works progressed yet no further payments were forthcoming. Vella explained to the court how he had been told by the FTS that he could not issue payments since the quantity surveyor, Robert Ciantar, who worked under instructions of Caruana, was not issuing the relative bills.

One day, two contractors, allegedly brothers from Rabat, Malta, had turned up at the sixth form building site to construct a retaining wall under direct order. When Vella voiced his annoyance about the fact that there were damaging his work, they remarked that they were rendering a favour to Caruana.

“You’d better give him what he wants,” the two had told Vella. “You won’t settle the matter in court. He’s powerful, on close terms with the minister.”

The €30,000 figure was also brought up by Ciantar when confronted by Vella over the non-issued bills, the witness recalled. Upon hearing this, the contractor had allegedly called the surveyor “thief” which sparked off a physical exchange between the two.

Vella also explained how, after a call from the St Julian’s police station, he had received a summons notifying him of charges for slander against Caruana.

“Those proceedings are on hold pending these proceedings,” the somewhat perplexed witness informed the court.

“To date I have not been paid in full for the works done and I have not had any further communication with Caruana,” Vella said.

Inspector Rennie Stivala prosecuted. Lawyers Stefano Filletti and Stephen Tonna Lowell were defence counsel. Lawyer Joe Giglio was counsel to Vella.

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