Planning Authority employing both Labour MP and former minister for legal services

Former planning minister Deborah Schembri and Labour MP Robert Abela both have contracts for legal services with the Planning Authority

Former lands and planning minister Deborah Schembri (left) and Labour MP Robert Abela
Former lands and planning minister Deborah Schembri (left) and Labour MP Robert Abela

The former minister Deborah Schembri’s new €42,000 contract as lawyer for the Planning Authority’s executive council, is running in tandem with another legal engagement for the firm of another Labour MP, Robert Abela.

For 18 years now, the Planning Authority has retained the services of Abela Advocates – a law firm run by Labour MP Robert Abela and his wife Lydia Abela, a Labour Party official.

A PQ raised in Parliament by Nationalist MP Jason Azzopardi has revealed that Abela Advocates was paid €110,000 in legal services by the PA in 2017 to date; €168,000 in 2016, €110,000 in 2015, and €88,000 in 2014.

The firm was granted a three-year contract to provide legal services to the PA in 2013.

The firm had originally been contracted out by the PA in 2001, when its then head of legal services Anthony De Gaetano accused the authority of mishandling a domestic planning matter concerning his property due to alleged political influence.

The PA paid the firm, then known as Abela, Stafrace & Associates, a total of €1.23 million up until 2011 for handling its caseload. The firm was selected through an expression of interest.

The contract was extended into 2013, and then renewed again for the fee of €107,263 annually and €54.99 for each hour of “additional work”.

After Abela’s father George was appointed President of the Republic in 2009, the caseload was left to partner Ian Stafrace before the latter was appointed chief executive of MEPA in 2011.

At the time of Stafrace’s appointment as CEO, the Labour opposition had criticised the direct appointment for the lack of a public call, saying the appointment proved “government interference” at the regulator. Later at the 2012 Labour general conference, Roberta Abela told delegates that the Nationalist administration had offered “20 years of the same faces”.

The Planning Authority has now confirmed that its former minister until June, Deborah Schembri was awarded a €3,500 monthly contract for three years just two months after she lost her seat in Parliament.

As Lands Minister Schembri also nominated the Lands Authority board, which is headed by retired Judge Lino Farrugia Sacco, as well as its chief executive, Carlo Mifsud, a former Labour candidate. A few months later, she was engaged to provide legal services to that authority, through a direct order, together with her former consultant on the Lands Authority reform, Robert Musumeci.