Strickland heir on Allied board insists Hillman promotion was fait accompli

Allied shareholder Robert Hornyold-Strickland hits back at claims by Strickland Foundation council member Mario De Marco

Robert Hornyold-Strickland
Robert Hornyold-Strickland

The heir to Mabel Strickland, Robert Hornyold-Strickland, has accused the Nationalist MP Mario de Marco of occupying a seat on the Council of the Strickland Foundation – the largest shareholder in the Alied Group – against the wishes of Strickland’s vision for the Times newspaper.

In a right of reply to this newspaper, Hornyold-Strickland – who holds 13% of the Allied Group, publisher of The Times – accused the Foundation of being responsible for the appointment of Hillman as managing director, who is now implicated in a commercial graft investigation over Allied’s acquisition of a printing press for its subsidiary Progress Press, from Keith Schembri.

De Marco, a member of the Strickland Foundation’s council (a 78% shareholder of Allied), has already rebutted that Hornyold-Strickland approved the motion to appoint Hillman in 2012 at a general meeting of Allied shareholders. De Marco said he was not present for the meeting.

But in a new statement, Hornyold-Strickland said the Allied board was presented with just one candidate – Adrian Hillman – to replace Vince Buhagiar, who was retiring as managing director in 2012. Buhagiar is also facing similar charges of graft in court. “We, as minority shareholders, were told Hillman’s selection had already been approved by the Strickland Foundation, which had 78% of the votes. There was, thus, no choice. For Demoarco to suggest that I was trying to mislead the public is therefore false.  Once again the reverse is the case as I deal in facts and not ‘cheap shots’.:

De Marco was co-opted to the Strickland Foundation council by his late father Guido in 2009, three years before Hillman’s promotion. “To say he had no part in this is simply disingenuous,” Hornyold-Strickland said.

He insisted De Marco – although not being a director of either Allied or Progress Press – was unequivocally “the key player in the Strickland Foundation”.

“De Marco was co-opted by his father Guido and Prof. Joseph Ganado onto the Strickland Foundation Council in 2009 at the same time as Max Ganado (now resigned) was also co-opted onto the Foundation by his father. Both parents remained on the Council of the Foundation until their deaths. In 2009, Guido De Marco and Prof. Ganado also voted themselves onto the board of Allied against the wishes of every other shareholder present,” Hornyold-Strickland said.

Hornyold-Strickland insisted that De Marco’s presence on the Strickland Foundation’s council was a conflict with the wishes of Mabel Strickland to ensure the newspaper’s independence from politics due to the risks of undue influence.

The ongoing case revolves around the purchase of a new printing equipment by Progress Press from former OPM chief of staff Keith Schembri’s Kasco Group in 2009. In court, the prosecution said that Progress Press was defrauded to the tune of €5 million with the profit going into the personal bank accounts of Buhagiar, Hillman, Schembri and Kasco director Malcolm Scerri.

Hornyold-Strickland also insisted that Allied’s minority shareholders were never given the opportunity to view the details of the different quotes for the new printing machinery because they were very “complicated”. “We were advised of the quotation amounts only and that directors had viewed the machinery and were happy to proceed, if authorised to do so. Now, maybe we can understand what ‘too complicated’ meant,” he said.

Hornyold-Strickland is locked in a legal battle with the Strickland Foundation, claiming that his late aunt was persuaded to change her will in 1979 by her testamentary executors, the late Prof. Guido de Marco and Prof. Joseph Ganado, while he was living in England. He wants their sons, Mario de Marco and Ganado Advocates partner Max Ganado, to release Strickland’s legal files from their possession, which he says will prove that his aunt had intended him to be the rightful owner of the Foundation’s 78% shareholding in Allied.

A Court of Appeal has said that all files passed on to the Foundation must be disclosed to the courts and heir.

Hornyold-Strickland also wants the Strickland Foundation’s 78% majority shareholding returned to the estate, claiming that Mabel Strickland’s key assets were improperly diverted into the control of De Marco and Ganado.

“Allied chairman Paul Mercieca stated this is an issue ‘strictly between the Strickland Foundation and the minority shareholder’ in a disingenuous attempt to distance Allied from the debacle. He wholly ignores the vital point that it was Allied’s company secretary, Clinton Calleja, who registered this disputed 78% shareholding – despite there being no valid instrument of transfer, as confirmed by the Courts. and despite the Strickland Foundation being ineligible to be a shareholder of Allied, a private exempt company, because it is a ‘body corporate’.

“These are facts, and so I am surprised by the chairman’s comments, especially as the company is involved and is a party to my ongoing court case 1136/2015 which is still hearing evidence and has reached no conclusion so I cannot comment any further at this time.  Whilst the timing might not be good for the company, it is important to get these facts out in the open and not to treat our readers like idiots.”

Hornyold-Strickland insists Guido de Marco appointed his brother, Henry Hornyold-Strickland – a UK resident, as a non-executive director of Allied Group because he refused to put Mabel Strickland’s heir instead. “As Mabel was terminally ill at the time, and Guido held her power of attorney (as I was forced to live outside Malta), I therefore felt it was more important to have a family member on the board when my aunt died. These are the facts.

“I was still under the impression that the majority shareholding of the newspaper group was being left to me, as my aunt had advised me, and I was wholly unaware that she had been ‘persuaded’ to change her will in 1979, because Guido de Marco had update me of these significant changes when I was living in London, as Mabel asked him to do. Had Mabel not been so ill, she would certainly have appointed me to the board of Allied instead of Henry at that time as she had promised me.”