Abela Dynasty: PA contract gifted by Nationalists and Labour alike

When a whistleblower was punished by MEPA in 2001, the Nationalist administration opened the door to the Abelas, then hand-picked Ian Stafrace for CEO, while Labour kept the money pipeline open

Robert Abela’s fat pay-cheque from the Planning Authority (a €500-a-day raise from €7,000 to €17,000 a month) did not just fall on his lap thanks to Labour’s now typical largesse with the party elite.

19 years ago, his father George Abela – a moderate Labour grandee whom the Nationalists believed held the key to the party’s re-election chances – was gifted this most lucrative of contracts. And the reason was that the PA wanted to kick out its own in-house lawyer, a whistleblower who took his own employer to court.

Tony De Gaetano was MEPA’s head of legal services in 2000. But when he decided to take the authority to court over a permit he believed had been issued illegally, he ended up being reprimanded and then demoted by being assigned the authority’s appeals cases, while his workload was transferred elsewhere.

In a legal saga that spanned right up to 2015, De Gaetano – brother to the Chief Justice emeritus – won defamation lawsuits against the authority, reversed his reprimand, obtained the courts’ confirmation that the contested MEPA permit issued back in 1998 had in fact been illegal, and ultimately, obtained an out-of-court settlement of €250,000 from the Planning Authority in 2015 so that he retires.

De Gaetano not only challenged his own employer in an uncharacteristic show of scrupulous fault-finding with MEPA’s rule-bending; he had filed court cases personally alleging the falsification of plans and a mishandling of a planning application by the firm of Sant and Mugliett – the latter partner being the Nationalist transport minister Jesmond Mugliett at the time.

But De Gaetano’s sidelining by MEPA in 2001 opened the door to one of the most lucrative legal contracts on the island – Abela Stafrace & Associates was given the authority’s caseload after a call for expression of interest, and the contract was renewed without tender, and without question by both the Nationalist and Labour administrations.

At the time, placating George Abela with such a contract sounded like a shrewd move. He was a former Labour deputy leader who resigned in 1998 after opposing the party’s plan for early elections. Keeping Abela – considered by the PN a vote-puller for Labour – away from a possible leadership challenge was a way for the Nationalists to have the unpopular Alfred Sant stay in charge of Labour.

After Robert Abela’s father was appointed President of the Republic in 2009 (Abela had lost the leadership bid to Joseph Muscat, and the Gonzi administration believed distancing him from Labour again was good strategy...), the caseload was left to partner Ian Stafrace.

Then in 2011 Stafrace was hand-picked by the Nationalist administration (no call for applications then...) to become its CEO. Robert Abela and wife Lydia Abela stepped in to continue the firm’s work. Today Ian Strafrace is often one of the go-to lawyers on difficult planning cases for the private sector.

Ian Stafrace: the Abela law firm partner was handpicked in 2011 to lead MEPA as chief executive
Ian Stafrace: the Abela law firm partner was handpicked in 2011 to lead MEPA as chief executive

At the time of Stafrace’s appointment as CEO, the Labour opposition had criticised the direct appointment for the lack of a public call, saying the appointment proved “government interference” at the regulator. Later at the 2012 Labour general conference, Roberta Abela told delegates that the Nationalist administration had offered “20 years of the same faces”. The irony today is gold-plated: he retained the contract upon Labour’s re-election and right before his election as Labour leader in 2020, agonised over whether his family should give up their PA brief.

Between 2001 and 2011, Abela, Stafrace & Associates, selected through an expression of interest, was paid a total of €1.23 million for its services. The contract was extended into 2013, and then renewed again for the fee of €107,263 annually and €54.99 for each hour of “additional work”.

This springboard for unlimited money, borne out of the mistreatment of a MEPA employee, and the exigencies of separate government administrations, is what led to the Abela’s feudal system inside the Planning Authority: €123,000 in direct orders from the PA, over and above their €17,000-per-month retainer, more than double the original €10,000 monthly retainer. This apart from legal consultancies from ARMS, Air Malta, and the Environment Ministry.

2020: Robert Abela says he will resign from his lawfirm should he be elcted PM