This is my story | Nikki Dimech

Sliema mayor NIKKI DIMECH recounts his side of the story as he fights off impeachment, and suggests he has fallen out of favour with mentor Robert Arrigo

I meet Nikki Dimech after repeated assurances that ‘I will be fair’. He is unsure of what fair really means. For the past weeks, Dimech – the young mayor of the Sliema local council – has been dogged by accusations of demanding kickbacks on a council contract. His political career in the pits, he claims he signed a statement of admission under duress. And now he arrives late to tell his side of the story, saying it is his unfortunate trademark.

Dimech’s involvement in politics started off when he first met Sliema heavyweight Robert Arrigo – entrepreneur, Sliema Wanderers FC president, then Sliema mayor and finally MP – during his negotiations for football star Michael Mifsud.

“Robert was livid,” Dimech recalls, “when he realised that Mifsud was leaving Sliema for Lillestrom, in Norway. But it was a perfectly legitimate move,” he stops, “made possible because of a clause I inserted in a lengthy contract that I had written out for Mifsud.”

Dimech, an auditor by profession, handled Mifsud’s affairs. This encounter with Arrigo sparked an invitation to enter politics. “He encouraged me to stand for the local councils in 2006 but in the last days of the nominations, he nominated his wife Marina. I was surprised.”

Marina Arrigo’s three-year tenure as mayor was however soon followed by Nikki Dimech’s election, who backed by the vote powerhouse of Arrigo, was guaranteed a sure-fire election to top post, automatically electing him mayor.

Dimech is restless, and I tell him to feel at ease. I ask him about his youth. “I was a mess” (kont imhawwad), he admits. He pulls off the conspicuous ring he carries on his finger. “This belonged to Cain Pavia, my best friend,” he says of the former Sliema waterpolo player who had died ten years ago.

I tell Dimech he is himself rumoured to be still struggling with a drug habit.

He denies the allegation. “Ten years ago I was at rock bottom. I come from a poor family. I do not take drugs today, I have made a comeback. I have a right to be successful in my profession. I employ my whole family. I will not let this break me.

“I would not have made it through these last two weeks, had it not been for my girlfriend.”

“I made it out of the rut, and I studied and today I am the youngest ACCA fellow in Malta and was awarded first place, internationally, for my Masters in Taxation. I started lecturing at 24 and now have my own audit firm.”

So how did it happen that he fell out with the man whom he famously called “his second father”, Robert Arrigo?

“We had a very good relationship,” Dimech says, stopping to add that Arrigo’s vote count in the last elections was in part, thanks to him. “I am convinced he got 500 votes in the last election because of me. When I stood in last council election, there was a gentleman’s agreement that Marina would not contest again,” he says, offering a glimpse into how politicians are made and disposed of.

He says the real trouble started in 2010, when individuals in the PN executive committee suggested that he should stand in the general election. “Robert got word of this and the trouble started,” Dimech says.

At this point, Dimech was pushed into the spotlight, after financial irregularities flagged by the Sliema council’s executive secretary were forwarded to the OPM’s internal audit investigations department.

He denies having done anything wrong, again. “All decisions were taken unanimously by the council, until March that is.” He refers to a former executive secretary, Althea Borg, who was employed on a temporary basis with the council. Dimech says she was eventually never reappointed, and instead parliamentary secretary for local councils Chris Said suggested – Dimech says this ‘suggestion’ is actually minuted in the council minutes – that Svetlana Curmi, formerly a DOI employee, be appointed secretary.

“We went along with this suggestion, but Althea wanted to keep her office. When she was asked to vacate the office the whole situation imploded. A contract worth €1 million was signed by Althea, but not by myself… and I was not even aware of the contract’s contents,” he claims.

He fails to explain, but tells me that there is more than meets the eye. At this point, media interest started being attracted by the presence of local government director Martin Bugelli at meetings at the Sliema council. Subsequently the council’s alleged financial management was sent to the IAID, and finally, to police investigators.

Dimech absented himself from the council for some six weeks, and with media interest growing on the happenings inside Sliema, he reappeared somewhat shaken, awkward-looking. The tenders’ incident seemed to have broken all hell loose, when a council worker, Stephen Buhagiar – a canvasser for Robert Arrigo – told police he had been asked by Dimech for a 5-10% commission on a council contract.

Nikki, who so far has claimed to have signed a statement of admission “under duress”, reiterates that he never asked for a commission. He nods his head repeatedly and gets all agitated.

“The truth is that when I told Buhagiar that the salary for a works manager is about €14,500 annually, and not €25,000 which – he said – [Nationalist MP] Robert Arrigo had led him to believe, he was furious.

“He said that he can not sustain his family on €14,500, and he asked me to increase it when I told him the council would not increase it because there are other applicants that only want that amount. Then he said that if I managed to issue a €25,000 salary he would give me €5,000. I told him that I would never take a commission, especially from someone’s salary. He then stormed out of the office, slamming the door.”

Dimech says that when his name came up in the council meeting where the position was being determined, he turned out to be one of the cheaper bidders. “I sincerely believed that he would be good for the job as he was doing similar work and I even voted for him. Had the conversation been as Mr. Buhagiar is alleging, then I would have hardly voted for him or at least abstained from the vote.”

“Stephen was at the council every day, and there was pressure to employ him as contracts manager,” he blurts out. “When he was finally employed we got his contract turned into a fixed wage.”

He says other councillors were not happy with Buhagiar, with reports coming in that he was driving Robert Arrigo around and doing other private maintenance works in the hours he was meant to be servicing the council.

Eventually Buhagiar was fired on the strength of a motion moved by Sliema’s deputy mayor, advising the council to dismiss Buhagiar. “I was not present when this vote was taken and it passed 9-1, the nine votes against Stephen were given by both political parties.”

Six months later, he learnt that Buhagiar’s allegation of a kickback had reached police headquarters. Last week, Dimech was summoned “for a chat”, he says, by  police inspector Angelo Gafa over the phone. “I entered the building with my fiancée who waited in the waiting room while I was asked to go to the Inspector’s office. He told me I was under arrest and I smiled and he shouted that this is no joke and to go tell my fiancée, Valentina, to leave. My fiancée did not leave and waited for me there all the long hours of my interrogation.”

At 9.45 am, he was told that if he did not fully corroborate what he was saying, “I will be dragged in front of all the press to court… I told him that this was not fair and I wanted to have a lawyer present. I was given a phone and I tried to phone my lawyer but he was abroad. When I asked to call another lawyer the police did not let me.”

Dimech claims the police inspector told him to consider his political career “already over” and “perhaps salvage my professional business.”

He also says he was told that if he didn’t admit to Buhagiar’s allegation, “otherwise he would make a show of me to the press. I kept on telling him that Buhagiar’s statement was not true but he would not accept this. This mental torture continued until 12.58pm.”

At this point, Dimech says a police sergeant entered the room while the interrogating officer started typing a statement. “While I kept repeating what I said was the truth, I felt the interrogating officer getting very angry. By 1:55pm, he finished the statement and instructed the police officers to lock me up in the basement prison cells.”

At this stage, Dimech says he was growing very anxious and started having trouble breathing. “I was wheezing and got a severe panic attack. I asked for my ventolin (inhaler) and two tranquilizers, so that I can breath properly as I suffer from chronic asthma and breathing panic attacks.”

Dimech says the police called the doctor to confirm his condition and get him medication. “My medication did not arrive. I spent over two hours experiencing acute asthma and panic attacks on my own in a cell.”

The police force has a different version of what happened at this point, claiming that Dimech was afforded “constitutional rights available” to suspects under interrogation. “Mr Dimech’s inhaler and pills were also brought to Police General Headquarters, by a friend of his, whilst he was in police custody, however, he did not request to make use of them.”

Dimech says his fiancée brought his inhaler from the car at 2pm, but two hours later he still was without his inhaler.

“At about 4pm, I was exhausted, broken. The police took me back up to the interrogation room and demanded a second statement. At this point I just signed whatever they said as I really needed my medication. I did not even read the second statement. I was told I could leave, and a police officer gave me my medication. I was disgusted with the treatment I had been subjected too.”

Dimech tells me that hardly had 20 minutes elapsed, that PN secretary-general Paul  Borg Olivier was on the line. Soon after Borg Olivier sent out a public announcement that he had expelled Nikki Dimech from the Nationalist party.

“I know that he is standing for the Sliema district in the next election and I am aware that there is some kind of alliance with Robert Arrigo,” Dimech says of Borg Olivier, claiming that he is vying for the second preference votes of the heavyweight to finally win a parliamentary seat he’s coveted since 1996.

“He has no right to expel me. The statute does not give him the right,” Dimech says, referring to clauses that allow him a ‘fair hearing’ before being formally expelled.

Did he have any contact with Robert Arrigo?

“Zero contact.”

How close are you? “Not close anymore. I think he isn’t a team player. He is very organised and plays chess with everyone.”

Dimech says he feels he has support from the council, but that he never expected to be expelled from the PN. “I will be meeting the Prime Minister after he returns from his vacation.”

But will he resign? Borg Olivier is demanding that he resigns after having admitted to police of demanding kickbacks.

“Why should I resign if others in government do not resign? I have done nothing wrong.”

“What about Paul Borg Olivier, will he resign over his yachting vacation?

“I will stay on as Mayor Sliema council.”

Will he stand in the next election?

“Yes I will.”

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Albert Zammit
Mr Dimech, the only way forward for you, it seems to me, is to take your case to the Courts to clear your name. I have no sympathy for the PN but I have sympathy for the individual. If you are a victim, then, the Courts should find in your favour. There is no other way.