Transport chief doles out lucrative direct order, sets up private firm

Transport Malta chief sets up private company as authority dishes out yet another direct order for concession of lucrative Senglea quay

Transport Malta executive chairman James Piscopo has set up Undecim Five Investments Ltd, an investment firm of his own
Transport Malta executive chairman James Piscopo has set up Undecim Five Investments Ltd, an investment firm of his own

Updated with right of reply received on Sunday 4 September, Monday 4 September

Transport Malta executive chairman James Piscopo has set up an investment firm of his own – Undecim Five Investments Ltd – as the lucrative revolving door of public officials seeking the corporate shilling, shows no sign of stopping.

Paid a salary of €85,000 for overseeing land, maritime and aviation transport sectors, the former Labour Party chief executive has even set up his company address at the A3 Towers in Paola, which also houses the transport authority’s vehicle and licensing units.

Piscopo has dismissed MaltaToday’s enquiries into his business affairs as a “non-story”, and declared that he has informed transport minister Joe Mizzi, saying he was given “his go ahead after having assured himself there would be no conflict of interest.”

Piscopo – a former Air Malta accountant who was then seconded to the PL – said his company does not employ anybody since it was only recently set up.

Undecim Five Investments – set up in February of this year – already owns a stake in BBF Ltd, a company registered last month.

Piscopo’s company owns 14% of BBF Ltd, whose other shareholders include Marie Claire Chircop, Analytic Investments Limited and Sap Holdings Limited.

Undecim Five was set up by accountant Robert Borg, whom Piscopo described as “a personal friend”.

But Borg – whose office at the A3 Towers provides Undecim’s letterbox address – has also served as the General Workers Union’s financial controller while having also until recently served as Transport Malta’s board secretary.

In May 2013, a couple of months after Labour’s election victory, Borg was also appointed on the board of the Water Services Corporation, ARMS Ltd and the Malta Statistics Authority.

A year later, Transport Malta decided to lease the GWU’s property at the A3 Towers – built by the JPM Bros firm – for almost €500,000 a year. In a similar deal, ARMS Ltd, a firm owned by Enemalta and the WSC, rented out part of the GWU’s headquarters in Valletta.

Denying any conflict of interest, Borg had said that he declared his interest beforehand as the union’s financial controller and left the meeting room when Transport Malta took the decision to award the €490,000 contract to the General Workers’ Union. So far, TM has refused to publish the contract it entered into with the union.

Piscopo has refused to explain what services the company offers and whether the firm is active. “The reasons and objectives are clearly shown in the Memorandum and Articles of the company, which is available online. All information is in the public domain,” Piscopo said.

The Memorandum of Association confirms that Piscopo is the sole director and shareholder of the company whose main trading activity is “to act as a holding company and thus hold equities and investments in other companies.”

Other ancillary activities listed in the document include: to enter into agreements with governments, authorities and private companies to obtain contracts, grants, rights, privileges and concessions “which the company may consider desirable”, management and company advisory services to local and foreign companies, the import and export of a wide ranging list of goods including foodstuff, machinery, pharmaceuticals and precious metals and dealing in property.

New direct order for lucrative Grand Harbour wharf

MaltaToday understands that TM has awarded another concession to a private company without a public competition.

Sources close to the authority told MaltaToday that Boiler Wharf in Senglea was awarded by direct order to a private company.

In its answers to MaltaToday, TM failed to explain who the operator is and how it adjudicated the concession.

A TM spokesperson limited himself to saying that Boiler Wharf is still fully managed by Transport Malta and it is still an auxiliary berth that acts as a Cruise Liner spillover berth when the Valletta Cruise Terminal is fully occupied whilst housing the operations of Transport Malta’s Pollution Incidence and Response and Maritime Enforcement Units and those of Malta Maritime Pilots Cooperative.

However, the TM spokesperson added, “on a temporary, short term agreement, Transport Malta had to provide space to a private operator who has been relocated to Boiler Wharf for the loss of use of its facilities within the area now earmarked the Malta Maritime Hub, as it did with other operators elsewhere, accommodating their requests. Another operator has a one-year contract for temporary berthing facilities on a call-by-call basis.”

Although TM failed to identify the provider, MaltaToday understands that the wharf has been awarded to Polaris Marine Services Ltd.

This is not the first direct order for the concession of quays in the Grand Harbour issued by the authority.

In April 2014, MaltaToday revealed that TM awarded a lucrative direct order to Melita Shipyards, incorporated just two weeks after the March 2013 elections, for a floating dock at Outer Coal Wharf in Marsa.

Piscopo had confirmed with MaltaToday that Melita was directly awarded the permit “because this was an immediate, realisable opportunity that ought not to be missed”.

He said the operation was expected to generate a turnover in the region of €10 million annually, and have a spillover effect for subcontractors and related services.

The 12-month agreement – which has apparently been renewed – was similar to other agreements for use of other port areas, and renewable subject to the success of the operation and at TM’s discretion. The operator is bound by a series of long-term conditions, including the engagement of four apprentices for three consecutive years, and a €4 million investment in infrastructure, equipment and upgrading of the area.

Similarly, in May 2014, TM had awarded a direct order to Ablecare Oilfield Services Holdings for the use of the former shipbuilding site in Marsa before the company was named as the preferred bidder for the development of a maritime hub in January 2015.

While confirming that Ablecare was using the former Malta Shipbuilding site for the temporary berthing, repairs and maintenance of semi-submersible oil rigs, the authority had explained that the site “does not fall under the sole remit of Transport Malta”.

Piscopo had told MaltaToday the concession was “a typical positive case where different government entities collaborated proactively, in seizing an imminently realisable opportunity that could have been missed if we did not act promptly.”

Right of reply

Meanwhile, in a reaction which in the days before was not forthcoming by James Piscopo, the Transport Malta executive chairman on Sunday sent a right of reply.

"I refer to Maltatoday’s story in the front page today. Your story is entirely misleading and requires clarification.

"Firstly, it should have been said and made very clear to your readers that the company set up by myself is a Maltese registered company, administered under Maltese Laws and is completely unrelated to my role at Transport Malta. I fail to see the sensationalism of this, and am baffled as to why Maltatoday dedicates its Sunday front page to the rehashing of a story already published online by a dubious source with a manifested conflict of interest.

"Secondly, Maltatoday refers to a berthing agreement which is completely unrelated to the gist of the non-story which it publishes on the front page, probably with the intention to maliciously confuse issues. The mentioning of a direct order is misleading to say the least. Again, Maltatoday’s 'understanding' smacks of conflicting information from the same dubious source. Transport Malta acted responsibly in allocating an existing operator, with ongoing operations, with temporary six month berthing agreement after the same operator had to be moved from its place of operations due to the privatization of the Maritime Hub."

In a separate right of reply, Polaris Marine Limited stated: "The publication implies that the company Polaris Marine Services Co. Limited was given a "New Direct Order for Lucrative Senglea Wharf" without a public competition.

Polaris Marine Services Co. Limited categorically rejects this assertion as this was not a direct order but a short-term agreement entered into between Transport Malta and Polaris Marine Services Co. Limited. The company had to translocate its business operations from the former Malta Ship Building site which was transferred to third parties and to this effect TM accepted to enter into a short-term agreement with Polaris Marine Services Limited not to stultify adversely the industry in which the company operates.

Polaris Marine Services Co. Limited has no connection whatsoever with Transport Malta Chief and none of the company representatives have ever met him as the publication seems to imply."