News is a funny thing. Stories go from being on the front page one week, to being completely forgotten the week after.
It’s normal. Current events are constantly changing and the so-called hierarchy is a fluid, ever-changing list of relevance, timeliness and relative vs absolute importance.
That doesn’t mean stories we haven’t heard of in a while are no longer important. It’s the media’s role to keep these stories alive, to keep the protagonists in check and to avoid issues being trivialised by time.
With that in mind, here are some stories from Malta that are still somewhat pending and which we hope to have some answers on in 2019.
1. The American University of Malta
The AUM project was announced with both great fanfare and controversy in 2015.
Sadeen Group, a Jordanian construction company, was chosen to spearhead the project which was lauded as a great educational initiative by some, and a controversial money-making venture by others. Sadeen was, after all, a construction company with no educational background and critics highlighted this, together with the fact that AUM was to be granted ODZ land in Zonqor Point, which further attracted criticism due to the site’s location in prime Maltese countryside.
The allocation of ODZ land was eventually halted until AUM completes its plans for the Cospicua campus.
In September 2017 AUM admitted its first student intake. It wasn’t all roses though and that first year of operation proved difficult, with AUM largely failing to reach its original target of 330 students and the institution going through multiple resignations and staff members being laid off.
2018 wasn’t much better. AUM halved its forecasted student intake but, according to local media reports, fewer than 70 students had applied with the university by end of August 2018.
It would be good to understand what is happening at AUM. As recently as January 2018, Prime Minister Joseph Muscat claimed he was convinced that AUM would be a success and referred to it, together with the University of Malta, as brilliant institutions. 2019 should definitely shed some light as to AUM’s successes.
2. David Casa’s alleged cocaine use
In October 2018, Maltatoday published a story about PN MEP David Casa’s alleged cocaine habit. According to the sworn affidavit of a former aide, Casa was a habitual user of cocaine between the years 2009 and 2017. Several hundred euros’ worth of the drug would be consumed at parties in hotels in Attard and St Julians, the aide claimed.
Casa immediately went on record to deny the allegations in full and offered to take drug tests, with the caveat that Labour MPs similarly take the tests. In other words, Casa was ready to take the test on condition that the Labour parliamentary group do the same.
Following the allegations, Lovin Malta had reached out to all parliamentarians to ask if they would submit to taking regular drug tests and if they agreed with the practice being adopted officially. 13 PN MPs, including leader Adrian Delia, agreed to the proposal; PD’s Godfrey Farrugia and Marlene Farrugia also agreed. The Labour parliamentary group all replied with almost identical replies, ignoring the question and pushing the ball back into Casa’s court.
Three months down the line, there haven’t been any developments on this particular story. Were the allegations about Casa true? Will we ever find out? Will any other witnesses to the alleged parties come forward? And crucially, what led Casa to respond with that cryptic challenge to Labour MPs to submit to drug tests too? Is there something he knows that we don’t?
3. French spies operating within Malta
In 2016, a plane crashed in Safi killing all five French nationals on board. The victims were secret service agents, or customs officials, depending on who you choose to believe. The Maltese government had issued a statement saying the French nationals were customs agents who were monitoring contraband and illegal customs operations in Libya. The French customs department denied this, with French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian claiming they were members of the French secret service.
The matter went relatively quiet until earlier this year when Maltatoday published a report detailing how the French agents operated from a house in Balzan. The officials were allegedly French spies monitoring the movement of arms in Libya. The incident took an even more bizarre twist as the two black boxes from the plane crash disappeared after French investigators came to Malta, slowing down the magisterial inquiry into the matter.
In November 2018 Joseph Muscat reconfirmed the government’s position that the French agents were part of a customs surveillance mission, also saying that customs surveillance would “obviously” overlap with intelligence operations. To complicate matters, Maltatoday recently reported that a second spy plane almost identical to the one that crashed in 2016 was using Malta as a temporary base at least up to November 2018.
Hopefully 2019 will be the year we obtain some more details in what may be Malta’s very own Tom Clancy novel in the making.
4. The police sergeant who celebrated Daphne Caruana Galizia’s murder
On October 16th 2017, the day of Caruana Galizia’s assassination, police sergeant Ramon Mifsud took to Facebook to celebrate her murder, writing “Everyone gets what they deserve, cow-dung!!!! Feeling happy :)”.
That move led to his immediate suspension from the police force. He was put on half-pay, pending an internal investigation into the matter by a disciplinary board and a follow-up by the Public Service Commission. His actions were largely condemned, including by Police Commissioner Lawrence Cutajar and spokespeople from the Office of the Prime Minister.
As of the beginning of October 2018, there was still no progress on Mifsud’s status. He is still a member of the police force and it seems the proceedings by the internal disciplinary board are still ongoing. Should the Public Service Commission find no wrongdoing, Mifsud will immediately be recalled for duty and refunded any salary that was withheld pending investigation.
The timely handling of this case is in sharp contrast with how the police promptly arrested three people earlier this year for posting derogatory Facebook comments against the police force, and prosecuted them quite quickly for incitement of violence. They were initially denied bail and therefore kept in jail for eleven days.
Perhaps 2019 will be the year the Ramon Mifsud investigation comes to some form of conclusion.
5. The Planning Authority board meeting that got a bit rough
In September 2018 several activists turned up to a Planning Authority board meeting to protest against more permits being granted for fuel stations developed on ODZ land.
Tens of protestors showed up with percussion instruments in what was a rowdy but peaceful protest. The protestors, mainly from Moviment Graffiti and Kamp Emerġenza Ambjent, occupied the first room of the building whilst a few police officers watched on. However the scene turned somewhat chaotic when further policemen and members of the Rapid Intervention Unit entered the building and started to eject the protestors in a less than gentle manner.
The manhandling of the protestors appeared somewhat excessive, prompting Prime Minister Joseph Muscat to condemn the excessive use of force and leading to the Police Board, headed by retired judge Franco Depasquale, opening an investigation into the matter.
The investigation is still ongoing, but the findings of the Police Board will hopefully be published at some point in 2019.
6. The Planning Authority board member who was flown in with a private jet
September 2018 wasn’t a quiet month for the Planning Authority. A couple weeks after the protestors incident, the PA made the controversial decision to fly in one of their board members for a vote on the approval of db Group’s high-rise project in Pembroke, by private jet.
PA board member Jacqueline Gili was on holiday in Sicily and was flown to Malta for the vote, then flown back to Sicily. It would later be revealed in parliament that the private jet trip cost €8,750.
The move drew harsh criticism, including from Prime Minister Joseph Muscat, and prompted Infrastructure Minister Ian Borg to request details on the incident so that the government would take the necessary action.
The PA justified its position by saying it wanted to make arrangements to ensure that all members were present for meeting. Curiously, several members are absent for votes from time to time, and Gili herself had been absent for 29 of 75 votes taken over 2017.
The vote eventually passed in favour of the project, with nine votes in favour and four against. Gili’s was one of the votes in favour.
It remains to be seen what action, if any, will be taken over this costly decision.
7. Chris Cardona’s Monaco expenses
In 2018, Economy Minister Chris Cardona faced public scrutiny over several solo business trips that he made in an official capacity over 2014 and 2015. The trips were all allegedly work-related, but the fact that Cardona flew solo and during days in the festive season or during key events raised eyebrows.
The focus fell on a particular trip to Monaco in 2015, on the same weekend as the Monaco Formula 1 grand prix. The trip, which cost almost €11,000 in taxpayer money, led to the National Audit Office looking into the matter.
The investigation found that €2,003 which Cardona claimed as hotel “extras” were unaccounted for, since Cardona could only retrieve the final page of the hotel invoice showing the total bill. So the money was definitely spent at the hotel, but what for couldn’t be determined. Cardona was also unable to retrieve his work agenda for that Monaco weekend.
2019 might be the year the full hotel invoice is located; or perhaps the Monaco hotel will be contacted by the Minister’s secretariat to provide a soft copy of the full bill.
8. Neville Gafà’s elusive occupation
In late 2018, government official Neville Gafà was in the news due to a contentious trip to Libya where he met high-level Libyan officials as well as known militia leaders. Despite Gafà claiming the trip was in his personal capacity, he was referred to in Libyan media as a “special envoy of Prime Minister Joseph Muscat”.
The trip sparked questions about Gafà’s elusive job role. He has claimed to work as a projects director for the Health Ministry, but Times of Malta have quoted sources within the ministry who claim he hasn’t worked at the ministry’s Merchants Street office since 2016.
This was around the time that Gafà was implicated in a visa scandal worth thousands of euros, and shortly after it seems he was transferred to the Foundation for Medical Services, another government entity, pending a police investigation into the scandal which eventually found no proof of wrongdoing.
Since then, it’s been reported that Gafà has occupied a role within the Office of the Prime Minister, but Gafà himself claims to still be working within the Health Ministry. This despite the fact that Health Minister Chris Fearne has stated that Gafà does not work within his secretariat.
The latest reports are now stating that Gafà has had his contract with the Health Ministry terminated, and that he is working at the OPM on a “voluntary basis”. Gafà claims that he was not fired from the Health Ministry, and that he is simply being transferred. Indeed, Gafà is expected to take a position with another government entity in early 2019.
2019 should hopefully provide more clarity on Gafà’s position that is ultimately funded by the taxpayer.
9. Medical Council proceedings against shadow health minister Stephen Spiteri
Last year Lovin Malta conducted an investigation into how Nationalist MP and shadow health minister Stephen Spiteri was issuing medical certificates for €5 each without seeing his patients first. Operating from a Kalkara pharmacy, patients were able to call in to the pharmacy and request the certificate, which they would pick up the next day.
This goes against medical practice which requires a doctor to actually examine a patient, especially when giving out certificates that are then used for sick leave. Speaking to Lovin Malta last year, Spiteri denied any wrongdoing.
The investigation prompted an inquiry by the Medical Council earlier this year. If found guilty, Spiteri could risk being struck off the medical register indefinitely. Interestingly, during the first hearing of the inquiry, Spiteri did not address the certificate allegations as such, claiming instead that the inquiry process breaches his human rights and is unconstitutional on the grounds that the Council shouldn’t have the power to investigate and also impose sanctions.
That first hearing was in October 2018. It would be good to see how the matter will progress in 2019, especially because Spiteri is not just an MP but also the shadow health minister.
10. The investigation into the mysterious 17 Black
The Panama Papers saga has dragged on for almost three years now but reached an apex recently when The Times of Malta reported that businessman Yorgen Fenech is the owner of 17 Black – a Dubai company listed as one of two target clients for Konrad Mizzi’s and Keith Schembri’s offshore companies.
The report added weight to suspicions that Mizzi and Schembri opened their companies with the intention of receiving kickbacks, given that Fenech is CEO of the Tumas Group, a partner in the Electrogas consortium behind the Delimara power station.
The suspicion of corruption is serious enough that police, assisted by a magisterial inquiry, started investigating 17 Black last March in a case that could have serious ramifications for two of the most powerful men in the government.
With documentation linking Mizzi and Schembri to 17 Black and a financial intelligence report recommending police action, will Malta finally get closure on this story next year?
There is also the small matter of the Dubai company Macbridge, the second target client listed by Nexia BT alongside 17 Black. No one has been able to uncover the identity of the person behind Macbridge and one would hope this doesn’t remain a mystery forever.
11. The review into Technoline’s grand hospital deal
There are many question marks surrounding the deal for Vitals Global Healthcare to take control over three Maltese hospitals, but none quite so strange as VGH’s decision to grant medical supply firm Technoline exclusive rights to manage the hospital supply chain.
This deal was signed a mere three months after the company was bought out by its former sales and marketing manager Ivan Vassallo, leaving us to question whether Vassallo had known such a deal was in the pipeline before he acquired the company.
When Steward took over the contract from Vitals last year, it pledged to review all the contracts and obligations its predecessor had entered into, including the Technoline agreement. In August, a spokesperson for Steward said its scrutiny on the Technoline contract will be concluded in “the coming weeks” but there has been no update since. Surely we’ll know where we stand in this regard in 2019.