Foreign delegations at CHOGM forced to get black market euros

Newly set-up firm takes lion's share of Commonwealth meeting's chauffeur business

Beyond CHOGM's pageantry: Newly mushroomed firm takes lion's share of Commonwealth meeting's chauffeur business
Beyond CHOGM's pageantry: Newly mushroomed firm takes lion's share of Commonwealth meeting's chauffeur business

Foreign dignitaries the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Malta had to turn to the local black market to exchange their stash of American dollars, as banks turned back foreign representatives and their currency due to money-laundering restrictions.

Representatives from one Asian and at least three African countries were constrained to turn to the black market to change their dollars into euros, MaltaToday can confirm, because CHOGM organisers failed to provide a ready supply of euro currency for the delegations in the run-up to the conference.

In similar international fora, host governments handle the exchange of foreign currency for diplomats, but CHOGM organisers did not apparently envisage this scenario.

Transactions for cash the foreign delegations brought with them to finance their stays, varied from US $60,000 to US $80,000.

MaltaToday is informed that ambassadors and members of the foreign delegations travelled to Malta with the dollars in their suitcases: in one instance described to this newspaper, an African diplomat who could not arrange to exchange his dollars was compelled to make use of a bank vending machine.

Many foreign delegations were also asked to settle 50% of their hotel accommodation bills on arrival, leaving many delegations irked by the strict payment terms. Sources close to the delegations said that leading hotels were unwilling to give credit to many delegations from Asian, Caribbean and African countries.

Serious concerns from service providers have also been raised about the flimsy procurement protocol used by the CHOGM organisers in giving out contracts.

Questions were raised over the choice of the Forte Chauffeur company, a recently set-up chauffeur service that has no formal company registration and appears to be run by a certain Charles Zammit from Siggiewi.

Of the 140 cars available for dignitaries, apart from the Volvos provided for Heads of State which are to be auctioned for charity during the Malta Community Chest Fund’s Strina, Zammit provided over 100 cars.

Chauffeurs who talked to MaltaToday confirmed that Zammit was present during most of the events directing his new fleet of cars, and that his company had suddenly mushroomed having provided some very expensive cars, including a model that cost over €100,000.

Many chauffeurs complained about the bad organisation at CHOGM, with little concern for their working conditions.

“Whereas the police had parking areas where they could avoid the rain and cold and have a bite or a smoke, we were forced to park outside in the rain and cold in a makeshift open parking area with no cover and one mobile toilet for 140 chauffeurs. If you needed to pee you would be better off finding a wall or a tree for cover.”

In the run-up to CHOGM, concerns were also voiced about direct orders given out – but the Office of the Prime Minister has refused to list the number of direct orders and tenders handed out for the organisation of the Valletta Summit and the Commonwealth conference.

Ray Calleja, a popular TV presenter, was awarded a €25,000 direct order for the artistic direction of the opening ceremony. In 2005, the opening ceremony had been awarded by tender to Welcome Events for the sum of over €150,000 – a company then run by Lou Bondì of Where’s Everybody, NNG, and Silvio Scerri of Nexos Lighting.

Preparations were also in full swing on a large steel structure being erected in Hagar Qim, as the venue for a gala dinner for Commonwealth leaders and Queen Elizabeth – which was however cancelled due to the inclement November rain.

The job was offered, this time by tender, to Charles Magro’s Tec Ltd for €57,000; half the price of the closest rival offer.

Magro’s Tec Ltd was in fact responsible for all the tents used by Labour during the last electoral campaign. No tenders were issued for the CHOGM press centre facilities and instead the company owned by Carmel Magro was selected directly by the OPM.

Magro was the person who had blown the whistle on works being carried out by JPM Bros, the owners of the Jerma Palace Hotel in Marsaskala, on the Balzan residence of then finance minister Tonio Fenech in 2009. Magro, who had not been paid for sub-contracted works on Fenech’s house, claimed that Peter Montebello had told him the works were “a favour for the minister to help him sell off the Jerma to Gasan and Fenech [the two business groups]”.

CHOGM continued through the weekend with few hiccups apart from problems with traffic and timing. Some traffic accidents were reported due to the fact that the majority, 64 in all, of the brand new police Ford cars were not installed with sirens.

A police officer driving one of the vehicles told MaltaToday that without the sirens’ blare bumper to bumper accidents were inevitable due to the sudden braking. “Many private cars will react to the sound of a siren but not to flashing lights coming from behind.”