Busuttil says Café Premier deal ‘stinks of corruption’

Opposition leader Simon Busuttil says €4.2 million 'bailout' between Café Premier owners stinks of corruption, says prime minister should shoulder political responsibility.

Opposition leader Simon Busuttil has this morning described the €4.2 million Café Premier deal as a “scandal stinking of corruption,” and called on Prime Minister Joseph Muscat to shoulder political responsibility for his “direct involvement.

A MaltaToday report on the €4.2 million amicable “bailout” between the Government’s Lands Department and Valletta’s Café Premier was this week vindicated by Auditor General’s report which flagged poor governance and lack of documentation justifying the decision to buy back the lease.

Speaking during a radio interview this morning, Busuttil pulled no punches in denouncing and lambasting the “scandalous” bailout, arguing that it stinks of corruption.

 “This was a huge scandal, more so since it directly involved the prime minister. The prime minister should keep his word on the government’s pledge on good governance and come clean on his involvement,” Busuttil argued.

“There is clear evidence from the Auditor General’s report that the prime minister was involved in the meetings,” he said while adding that a personal email showed Muscat allegedly giving the green light for the €4.2 million acquisition to go ahead.

The report by the National Audit Office, requested by the Opposition, was spurred on by MaltaToday’s first report back in February 2014 when it broke the story that the Government Property Department (GPD) had withdrawn legal action for the rescission of CE’s lease, despite having fallen back on some €250,000 in ground rent.

Instead, on the advice of former GPD director and advisor to the Prime Minister, John Sciberras, the Cabinet approved a €4.2 million bailout to buy back the 65-year lease on the café in Old Theatre Street, Valletta; which money was used to pay the State back on outstanding rents, energy bills, VAT and tax, as well as Banif Bank loans of €2 million and a €210,000 fee to CE’s shareholder Mario Camilleri for brokering the deal with John Sciberras.

“There was a €4.2 million payment which was personally and directly approved by the prime minister after he had carried out negotiations. This payment should have never happened,” he said.

“There is clear evidence from the Auditor General’s report that the prime minister was involved in meetings,” Busuttil said while adding that the report also included an email in which the Prime Minister replied “OK let’s move on” with reference to the payment.

Busuttil also argued that rather than forking out €4.2 million out of the taxpayers’ pocket, the government could have instead sued the Café Premier directors in court to take back the property for failure to pay rent.

On Friday, Prime Minister Joseph Muscat admitted meeting Café Premier Director Mario Camilleri before the 2013 general election, but Muscat defended the meeting, saying he always met and still meets entrepreneurs on a regular basis.

Moreover, the prime minister insisted that the discussions that took place between the government and Café Premier only took place after Muscat became prime minister, and not before the election. However, Busuttil questioned the timing of the meetings held before and after the last general election.

“Is it possible that after spending 25 years in opposition, Labour’s utmost priority was to meet the Café Premier owners?”  a sceptical Busuttil questioned.

“The prime minister’s problem is when he says that he will learn from his mistakes. However, the problem is that the people are footing the bill for his mistakes. With €4.2 million, the government could have spent the money on a new school, to reduce the waiting lists, or to cut the fuel prices,” he continued.