Labour urges PN to stop ignoring NAO reports pointing fingers at Azzopardi

Labour deputy leader Chris Cardona says Simon Busuttil – or the future PN leader – must stop excusing Jason Azzopardi and take action over the damning NAO reports

Labour deputy leader for party affairs Chris Cardona addressed a press conference together with PL MP Stefan Zrinzo Azzopardi
Labour deputy leader for party affairs Chris Cardona addressed a press conference together with PL MP Stefan Zrinzo Azzopardi

The latest reports issued by the Auditor General are the “umpteenth” confirmation that former lands minister Jason Azzopardi had repeatedly failed to respect the principle of good governance and transparency, Labour deputy leader for party affairs Chris Cardona said.

Flanked by PL MP Stefan Zrinzo Azzopardi, Cardona insisted that the latest reports by the Auditor General on the transfer of property in St Julian’s and the expropriation of the Fekruna Bay property were damning and smacked of lack of good governance and transparency.

“This is not the first time that the Auditor General has condemned Jason Azzopardi during his role as minister,” Cardona said, reminding that equally damning reports had emerged on the 2009 land transfer of the former Lowenbrau brewery in Qormi and the acquisition of the Valletta property from HSBC.

Cardona insisted that the PN could no longer leave the matter ignored. “The credibility of the PN as a credible opposition is at stake. It cannot keep employing two weights, two measures. If Azzopardi doesn’t want to should responsibility himself, then the party’s leader should take action.”

Cardona went on to add that, in the past, the PN had taken steps against its own MPs. “Simon Busuttil had taken action against Giovanna Debono,” he added.

In the latest report on the expropriation of the property at Fekruna Bay, the NAO acknowledged that the government’s efforts to acquire land to be returned to its original state for the benefit of the public, served the intended public purpose. However, the NAO argued that it deemed “anomalous” procedures in the “amicable agreement” which the property evaluation committee had adopted.

A comparison of the valuations of the lands exchanged as established by the Internal Audit and Investigations Department and those cited in the contract, revealed a difference of €1,127,424, adverse to Government. The NAO also found that the owners of the expropriated property had been involved in valuing government-owned land.

In the case of the transfer of the property at 83, Spinola Road, St Julian’s, the NAO found that the temporary emphyteusis of this Joint Office property was acquired by E.G. Property Holdings Ltd in 1998, at which point the emphyteusis had already expired. By the time the GPD became aware of this anomaly, the Company had developed the site as part of a larger complex. Compounding matters was the Company’s encroachment on public land when extending the development over the adjacent foreshore, over which Government had initiated judicial action.

Notwithstanding the Court ruling in the Government’s favour, the GPD disposed of the site, including that of the expired emphyteusis, for €525,000.

 “It remained unclear to the NAO who instructed and authorised the assimilation of the foreshore with that of the expired emphyteusis. Although this decision followed a meeting between the GPD and the Company, the Office traced no documentation authorising the incorporation of the foreshore as part of 83 Spinola Road, which assimilation significantly increased the dimensions of the site,” the NAO said.

The NAO said it had noted various instances when decisions to dispose of the site were taken based on incomplete information, including authorisation of the tender proposal by the Director General (DG) GPD, referral to the Department of Contracts and approval by the Minister for Finance, the Economy and Investment (Minister MFEI) and the Parliamentary Secretary (PS) Revenues and Land.

“Critical in this respect was the involvement of the Commissioner of Land, who was certainly aware of the Court ruling yet failed to bring this significant fact to the fore notwithstanding numerous opportunities to do so. In the NAO’s understanding, the omission of any reference to the foreshore misled the due consideration of the case and cast doubt on the integrity of the process,” the NAO said.

“The Government failed to secure value for money in the disposal of this site for €525,000, which amount was agreed to by the parties following arbitration. The NAO established the value of the site and structure at €2,400,000. Even if one were to consider the site and its potential, which the NAO valued at €1,500,000, it is immediately evident that the GPD failed to obtain a fair value for the property.”

Whilst the NAO did not find direct evidence of political pressure, it highlighted the involvement of the then Minister for Fair Competition, Small Business and Consumers – Jason Azzopardi – and his head of secretariat in the latter stages of the process of disposal.

“In the NAO’s opinion, the context of the change from perpetual emphyteusis to sale indicated an element of ministerial involvement, for it was after a meeting held with the Minister MFCC and the Permanent Secretary MFCC that the DG GPD recommended disposal through outright sale. This contrasted with an earlier recommendation by the DG GPD and the endorsement of the Minister MFEI and the PS Revenues and Land for disposal of the site through perpetual emphyteusis.”

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