Jason Azzopardi says he has no regrets on Fekruna Bay expropriation

The PN MP who was responsible for the Lands Department insisted that he had never interfered in land valuation and would act in the same way if it were to happen today

The National Audit Office had found that the government did not get value for its money in the deal
The National Audit Office had found that the government did not get value for its money in the deal

Nationalist Party MP Jason Azzopardi said on Wednesday that he had no regrets about the controversial Fekruna Bay land expropriation saga.

Azzopardi was testifying before the Public Accounts Committee where he was asked several questions about his involvement in the deal by government MPs.

He insisted that he had always acted responsibly and had nothing to hide. “Yes, under the same circumstances with the same information at hand I would have done the same thing,” he said.  

Azzopardi was meant to testify before the committee last week however his request to read out a prepared statement before answering questions led to the session having to be suspended, pending a ruling by the Speaker.  

While Azzopardi insisted that he should be allowed to read his statement, given that previous witnesses had been afforded the same right, the government’s side refused, insisting that there was no need for the statement to be read out given that it was going to be presented to the committee.

In his ruling, the Speaker said that if no agreement can be reached within the committee, to allow witnesses to read their statement, witnesses should at least be afforded ten minutes to explain their statement.

While one might have thought that this would have been enough to settle the issue, as Azzopardi began to read a second, supposedly shorter, statement, Labour MP Robert Abela objected, insisting that the Speaker’s ruling clearly stated that Azzopardi couldn’t read his statement but simply explain it.

Abela also took issue with the fact that Azzopardi claimed in his opening remarks that the Speaker’s ruling had proved him right.

In his explanation, Azzopardi noted that an internal OPM audit into the case in 2015 had found that there were only administrative shortcomings.  He said that back in 2007, MEPA had identified the land in question as being good for expropriation and that following this, in 2008, the PN had pledged to turn in a public space.

He went on to say that in 2010 efforts got underway to find a property of equivalent value that could be exchanged for the Xemxija land.

Turning to criticism about the fact that the expropriation had been affected days before the 2013 election, Azzopardi stressed that it had been the result of three and half years of negotiations, and had been determined to be in the public interest by the government.

“I’d like to know at what point we’re saying the process should be stopped,” Azzopardi said. “If we agree, fine let’s do it, let’s change the constitution.”

He declared that had no interest in the deal, had never been approached by the owner of the property and had not been involved in the valuation of the property.

Moreover, Azzopardi also pointed out that the expropriation had been in the public interest, so much so that the present government had continued with embellishment works since coming to power.

At a point Abela asked Azzopardi whether he had a copy of the departemental file, to which Azzopardi said no, despite Abela repeatedly reminding him that he was under oath.

Asked why it was that the government did not insist on its valuation, despite the fact that the owner’s architects had valued the land differently, Azzopardi said that it was common practice at the Lands Department for a board composed of three architects to be appointed when there was disagreement over property’s valuation.  

Azzopardi acknowledged that the Auditor General had found that the government had lost €1.2 million in the deal, but pointed out that his job as a politician was to give political direction and not to actually value the property himself.

In his opening statements, Azzopardi claimed that he had been the victim of a smear campaign by Labour-leaning media. Asked by Abela whether he had ever opened libel proceedings, Azzopardi said he hadn’t.

Asked about the fact that former Lands Department director general Eman Schembri had written to him asking whether he should proceed with the expropriation given that it was the eve of the election.

Azzopardi said that he had given Schembri the go ahead, after consulting with then Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi’s personal assistant Edgar Galea Curmi. It was at this point that Azzopardi stressed that he had no problem taking responsibility for the decision.

He said the decision had been taken in view of the fact that the negotiations had been going on for three and a half years and in view of the fact that there was a public interest.

“You can agree or disagree. I took responsibility for it, given that the process had not started a few days before,” Azzopardi said.

Government MP’s at this point accused Azzopardi of contradicting himself, given that he was the member of the PAC that had evaluated the employment of over 200 employees by Wasteserv on the eve of the 2017 election.  

However, Azzopardi said it the two cases were completely different since the employment of the the employees in question was not the result of a three- and-half year long negotiation process.

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