Compromised lands | Jason Azzopardi

Shadow justice minister Jason Azzopardi is convinced that Labour’s economic successes will not be enough to rein in a disillusioned electorate

PN MP Jason Azzopardi
PN MP Jason Azzopardi

Shadow justice minister Jason Azzopardi has been on the government’s case ever since Labour clinched power with a 36,000 vote majority. He is convinced Simon Busuttil is clawing back floating voters with his pledges on good governance.

So, after reading the NAO report, can he personally state that an act of corruption has taken place inside the GPD?

“You cannot come to any other conclusion. Simon Busuttil is right in saying that the hallmark of this government is corruption. You have the issue of the thousands of visas that were issued for example. And this is not even the first case at the Lands Department – there was the Café Premier bailout. The question I ask is that, if Falzon has resigned on this case, what should have Muscat done on the Premier scandal?” Azzopardi says of the €4.3 million bailout that was unilaterally negotiated at the Office of the Prime Minister with a private entrepreneur who owed money to the State.

“The Gaffarena expropriations were taking place at around the same time, February 2015, when the NAO had just published its audit of the Café Premier rescission of the unpaid lease. Muscat said at the time the government had committed a genuine mistake, that they were still learning… at the same time, a new scandal was brewing, again under Muscat’s nose. To err is human, and I remain convinced the Café Premier bailout was a pre-electoral deal, but to persist in error is certainly diabolical,” Azzopardi says.

In its report, the NAO gave no quarter to Falzon’s negligence in stopping what should have been viewed as a highly irregular expropriation meant to enrich Marco Gaffarena overnight – language that Falzon himself is protesting against, claiming the NAO is almost sounding like the Opposition leader himself in a bid to politically manipulate the outcome.

“To me the language is unprecedented,” Azzopardi concurs, but only up to the level of the grave shortcomings the NAO revealed. “All it had to say was that this is some Mafioso soap opera. A chapter in itself is dedicated to ‘the elusive public purpose’ and there he comes down like a ton of bricks, with trenchant criticism, and lists eight reasons why there is a suspicion of collusion.”

And yet Azzopardi, whose dogged shadowing of the home affairs and justice ministries turned him into one of the PN’s most visible of political animals, seems unwilling to lay the fault directly at Falzon’s feet.

“The NAO said he faithfully referred to the estate director’s statement that the property could be expropriated for public purposes. The NAO points out the failure of the politicians to make a verification on this case. How can an outlay of millions not be verified? Falzon had to ask the PM whether there were plans for a new ministry building in Valletta or the culture minister about a possible museum. Even in my time, I had refused an expropriation that had no public purpose.

“What Falzon should have done when Gaffarena ‘instigated’ the expropriation, as the NAO described it, was to send him packing. For me it is inexplicable and unjustifiable behaviour – and the NAO say this was atypical, the first case where someone demands their property be expropriated.”

Even more serious could be the criminal implications of a probe by the Attorney General, given that the government lands transferred to Gaffarena were seriously undervalued by architect Joseph H. Spiteri, while the value of the Old Mint Street palazzo Gaffarena partly owned was over-valued. In the ensuing €1.65 million payout in cash and lands, it was the Commissioner of Lands Peter Mamo who pointed out he had reservations and would not endorse the GPD’s directives.

Azzopardi recounts having challenged Falzon on TV as to why, if he truly believed Old Mint Street was a historical building, he did not apply the legally-set valuation for such historical buildings, which ultimately set lower values in favour of government expropriations. “He had no answer for me. And now the NAO says that applying this historical valuation would have resulted in less of a disbursement since the open market value would have been adjusted,” Azzopardi says, as he fires off from a copy of the NAO report smothered in notes and underlined paragraphs of incriminating revelations.

So Falzon was lying…

“Again I’m not in a position to say that,” Azzopardi says. “He was certainly not attentive enough of what some people told him; and that he had a person of trust [Clint Scerri, customer care aide] who was introducing Gaffarena to certain people at GPD. Unthinkable. In my case I never met someone to do expropriation,” he says, a former minister of lands who is no stranger to controversy.

“Irrespective of his bluster, Joseph Muscat has feet of clay and he does not have the moral authority to take the necessary decisions. He has countenanced so many abuses with so many ministers, that he is compromised. When the NAO report was published, there was no way out. If he had asked Falzon to resign before, his minister would have told him, ‘are you going to make me resign – you who negotiated the Café Premier bailout on your Gmail account?’.”

Azzopardi is convinced that Labour’s economic successes, once so important to the successive Nationalist administrations to win back power consecutively, will not be enough to rein in a disillusioned electorate. He says good governance can win back the government for the PN.

“Especially with switchers. We’re seeing it in home visits. People’s tolerance has been broken. They are feeling a sense of revulsion, they are disgusted. And we’re projecting ourselves as an alternative government with proposals on the environment, good governance and the economy.”

Azzopardi says that with the political class now suffering an ebb in trust, Simon Busuttil has clawed back over 20,000 votes in the last two years.

“I think the government made a mistake just concentrating on the economy, which the PN laid the foundations for at a time when oil was well over $100 a barrel. Muscat continued this success, surely. But he makes a cardinal mistake – man does not live on bread alone.”

Azzopardi then recounts how the 1987 election win that the Nationalists clinched by a few thousands of votes, was based on basic priorities that in the eighties were indeed life-changing decisions. “If you talked about good governance, transparency or the environment, people would have sent you packing. What was important then was freedom from police brutality, freedom of expression, and a secure job in the private sector. Labour thinks today that it’s only the economy that counts. The people, especially floating voters, have better standards.”

But it is also unlikely that the PN will ever be immune to its traditional and long-standing relations with the business class or big benefactors who also propped up the former administration and their electoral machine.

Azzopardi says Muscat’s god is money while Busuttil is being clear on “high-rise in Mriehel” and boathouses in Armier, mentioning two bugbears of the environmental lobby. “Take a look at direct orders. They are obviously being disbursed to a few companies, and small businesses are not confident that this money is being distributed fairly.”

Azzopardi has not been left untouched by the allegations investigated by the IAID, given that the expropriation of the Fekruna restaurant was only finalised at the end of March 2013, on the eve of the election.

“In contrast with the Premier and Gaffarena cases, I never met Ray Vella or his representative or his family members; nobody ever spoke to me about Ray Vella. I can look at Muscat and Falzon and tell them that I never met any of these people personally.

“The PN had made an electoral promise to expropriate private property that was of scenic beauty and historical value for the public to enjoy. We created a property evaluation committee with various civil servants to expropriate the Riviera Martinique, the Ulysses Lodge, the former Festival Apartments in Mellieha, Tigullio, and Fekruna.

“In 2010 the committee met the owners. Why was Fekruna concluded before the election? The land was valued at €5 million by three architects, having appreciated after it was deemed ‘developable’ by a new local plan. I approved the arbitration committee settlement between the owners’ value and GPD’s value. The approval from the finance ministry came in January 2013 and we finalised.”

Azzopardi gives short shrift to the fact that the IAID identified an administrative error of €20,000 in the €5 million pay-out. “If the criticism is that the decision came before the election, will the PM agree to stop tenders being issued during an election campaign?”

It’s an unrealistic proposition, but maybe the problem for Maltese political governance is its lack of transparency on public property transfers that accord nobody the facility to scrutinise such operations.

“Which is why Simon Busuttil is proposing to publish every land transfer. When we come to transparency, Muscat now plans to do a reform by creating a lands authority and he is saying that the MEU was stopped from carrying out a reform at the lands department back in the day.

“The biggest reform I had started there was the land estate management information system (LEMIS) in 2010, which Muscat stopped. It was a five-year €900,000 investment to digitise some 135,000 files of 25 million pages in total, some dating five centuries old, so that every employee would have access to the single document without it being lost in the process, and to have an audit trail for everyone who accesses these documents. After the election this process stopped.”

More in Interview