Former minister challenges Muscat to publish Premier, Mare d'Oro files

Parliamentary secretary for planning Michael Falzon calls on PN to support its 'suspicions of corruption' with proof

Shadow justice minister Jason Azzopardi has challenged the Prime Minister Joseph Muscat to publish all of the Land Department’s documents relating to the PN government’s expropriation of Mare D’Oro in Xemxija, together with all of the department’s files relating to the Muscat administration’s bailout of Café Premier.

The gauntlet was thrown down during yesterday’s edition of weekly discussion programme, Reporter, on which Azzopardi was debating the Café Premier bailout with Parliamentary Secretary for Planning and Simplification of Administrative Processes, Michael Falzon.

Azzopardi was retorting to Falzon who, in justifying the fast-tracking of the Café Premier bailout, compared it to the previous administration’s handling of the Mare D’Oro expropriation. Both interventions cost the taxpayer close to €4.3 million.

Café Premier and Mare D’Oro expropriations, compared

MEPA had issued an enforcement order on the derelict site of the Mare D’Oro restaurant in the picturesque Fekruna Bay in St Paul’s Bay in November 2010. The following 4 March, on the eve of the 2013 election, the PN government announced the expropriation of the land for a “public purpose” in the government gazette.

An agreement giving compensation to the owners was signed a day later. Works on the demolition of the restaurant started immediately and were reported on the Times of Malta on polling day.

“Firstly, no prime ministers were involved in the Mare D’Oro case,” said Azzopardi. “Secondly, the negotiating process involved a team of architects from the Lands Department, who in August 2010 began to implement an electoral promise by the PN to expropriate a series of properties from the private sector for the enjoyment of the public. The government of the time appointed the property evaluation committee from the lands department to establish the value. Three architects were involved”.

“On 3rd October 2013, the Labour government applied to MEPA to upgrade the area to open it to the public, following the demolition of the Fekruna restaurant. If there was something so incorrect about this, why would the Labour government continue the process?” he added.

“I challenge the Prime Minister to, tomorrow morning, publish all the files of the lands department of the expropriation at Xemxija but at the same time to publish all of the department’s files relating to the Café Premier bailout so the public can see who was transparent and who wasn’t.”

The Café Premier bailout

Falzon adamantly maintained that the value paid to Café Premier was a fair one. “There were three valuations on the property which more or less reflected the same value.”

Saviour Balzan, chairing the discussion, asked the MPs about the €210,000 commission on the deal that was claimed by a shareholder of Cities Entertainment, the Café Premier leaseholder. If the private sector had bought the Café Premier and the government had not bailed it out. Would this commission still have been paid?

Azzopardi was in no doubt that Joseph Muscat negotiated the bailout alone. He pointed to the auditor’s report which says that there had been an identical offer by Anglu Xuereb.  ”The director of Cities Entertainment requested a meeting because [OPM advisor] John Sciberras claimed that the OPM had informed him that ‘he could not engage in any price negotiation as he merely taking direction on the issue’. Sciberras was therefore acting on the direction of the Prime Minister,” Azzopardi said.

The MP claimed that the commission was discussed with Muscat in a meeting in July in which the directors of Cities Entertainment, the head of civil service and the OPM chief of staff.

“The Prime Minister wanted the €4.2 million, including €2.5 million to pay off a bank loan,  €300,000 ground rent in arrears, €200,000 in income tax from public money. There are people who have gone to prison for not paying VAT, how can this not smell of corruption?

Balzan asked Azzopardi whether he is saying that someone in government was corrupt in its dealings.

“It could be a party for all I know, but it stinks,” replied Azzopardi. “Look at the facts: Why were the Parliamentary Secretary for lands and the Commissioner of lands not involved?”

Falzon, however, hit back. “If you allege something, it is up to you to prove it. The Opposition likes to play the game of saying ‘I can’t say for sure, but I smell something’, after making public allegations in the hope of sullying the government. In his last statement, Azzopardi said Mario Camilleri [part-owner of Café Premier] wanted more. This shows the government negotiated well enough to get a better deal than he had wanted.”

 

Why was the bailout fast-tracked?

Falzon justified the speed with which the decision was taken, saying this was to preserve the National Library, which lies directly above the Café. “Beneath the library you have a kitchen. The government said ‘look here, I have a priceless national library and I don’t want to have a kitchen underneath it, I want better access.’”

Asked if this need for haste justified the discarding of procedure, Falzon distinguished between protocol and procedures on one handm and bureaucracy on the other. “There was one choice: either we go to court and spend years fighting it out or we agree on a price and spend it. The government chose the latter option in the best interest of the people.  Let us not give the impression that that this is the first time something like this has happened”.

“In the Fekruna case, two days before the election, the PN spent five million euros for the expropriation of the Fekruna Bay restaurant. Not only was there no written request by a minister, but not even the deposit required by law was made”.

Falzon, however, pledged that the government would address any shortcomings identified by the auditor for future acquisitions.

Balzan asked Azzopardi what he would have done, had he been in the government’s position. His reply was abrupt. “If I was Prime Minister I would have resigned,” he said.

“In a normal country, this would be expected. If the Prime Minister had a sense of pride, he would have done so. This is the Prime Minister who based his electoral campaign on accountability and transparency. Now we are holding him to his word and he cannot turn on any of his ministers or parliamentary secretaries because he did this himself.”

 

Reporter, hosted by Saviour Balzan, airs every Monday at 20:40 on TVM2, with a repeat at 21:55 on TVM.

 

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