Schembri defends ‘gentleman’ Michael Falzon, dismisses corruption accusation

Newly appointed planning parliamentary secretary Deborah Schembri says Gaffarena scandal was direct consequence of inadequate planning laws, says Gaffarena scandal was a ‘mistake’ not ‘corruption’

Newly appointed junior minister Deborah Schembri has leapt to the defence of her predecessor, Michael Falzon, insisting that the former parliamentary secretary for lands is a “gentleman” and was not guilty of corruption.

“Michael Falzon is a gentleman and in no way do I think that what happened should diminish his qualities. Mistakes happen … Things did happen under his watch but he paid for them and that in itself is a sign of gentlemanly behaviour,” Schembri said in an interview with The Sunday Times of Malta.

Falzon resigned after the Auditor General declared that he had colluded with officials of the Government Property Department and businessman Mark Gaffarena in the expropriation of a palazzo in Old Mint Street. Falzon has since mounted a spired defence, accusing the National Audit Office of a “politically motivated attack” and “a work of political revenge.”

Insisting that Gaffarena’s fast-tracked expropriations were tantamount to a “mistake” and not “corruption,” Schembri argued that the scandal was not a direct consequence of the familiarity between the Gaffarenas and politicians or Gaffarena’s power.

Rather, Schembri blamed the structure in place at the Lands Department, claiming that the “structure allowed anyone with bad intentions to abuse the system without restraint.”

Particularly, she explained that the lack of legal guidelines on how to carry out a land valuation and the lack of definition as to what constitutes ‘public purpose’ would have changed matters.

“This does not mean that nobody would try and break the law. But a clear law would leave no space for ambiguity and anybody would be able to contest the decision … The current law provides such a wide definition of public purpose that it is difficult to dispute any reasons given. Public purpose should be a very well defined section in the law. Uncertainty at law is a major problem,” Schembri said.

The junior minister also argued that she did not see anything wrong in Gaffarena choosing the lands he wanted as part of the expropriation deal, claiming that this option should be made available to everyone as “it is the least that can be done by the state in return for taking your hard-earned house.”

Questioned on whether she will be asking the Malta Environmental and Planning Authority (MEPA) to reconsider the building permit issued to parliamentary secretary Ian Borg, Schembri – the junior minister responsible for lands and MEPA – argued that there is nothing on which she should ask MEPA to investigate.

Notwithstanding the fact that an Ombudsman report found that Borg had employed “devious” methods to acquire a permit for his Dingli house, the newly appointed parliamentary secretary remained adamant and claimed that Borg had not committed anything illegal.

“As a lawyer I have seen a lot of situations where individuals give somebody else the mandate to act on their behalf. This is legal. It does not make sense to me that Ian Borg is being accused of being devious by going down this road, implying he wanted to hide his name for some reason or another, and at the same time accusing him of obtaining the permit of because who he is. I believe the case was overblown,” she said.

Just a week into her new role as the parliamentary secretary responsible for lands and the Malta Environmental and Planning Authority, the junior minister will undoubtedly have her hands full as the government announced radical changes in the law and structures in place at the Lands Department.

She explained that the secret to success is to strike a balance between the interests of environmentalists and developers, and that the demerger of MEPA was a step forward because it strengthened the hand of environmentalists.

However, the Prime Minister’s plans to revamp the Lands Department have been downplayed by the Nationalist Party, with Opposition MP Ryan Callus claiming that it will not be enough to prevent future incidents of corruption and abuse.