Gaffarena scandal: putting things in perspective

The events that followed the court’s decision on Tuesday to revoke the corrupt deal on a palazzo in Valletta involving Mark Gaffarena shed light on the state of Malta, as political parties were falling over themselves to take credit for the outcome but nobody pointed to the elephant in the room – accountability.

‘The court decides in favour of the Prime Minister in the Gaffarena case’ was the headline on the Labour Party’s media One News. Supporters rushed to bestow praise on Prime Minister Joseph Muscat for his ‘victory’.

The State broadcaster, TVM, ran with a similar headline – no surprise there. TVM has developed a nasty habit of ignoring scandals entirely unless the government has something to say about them, in which case it follows suit without question.

There is no doubt the decision by Madame Justice Anna Felice is a good outcome – public land transferred in a corrupt deal should be returned back to the people.  This is one of the very few cases in Malta where justice may actually be delivered. Yet, things need to be put in perspective or we are complicit in rewriting history even before the dust settles.

This was one of the very few investigations in Malta that was not the result of a tip-off from a political party. Most of the scandals the public gets to know about in Malta are usually the result of an agenda by the opposing Party, resulting in a tip-off that a journalist then does or does not bother to verify before publishing the information.

The Gaffarena scandal was published in The Times of Malta in 2015, thanks to the support of the editorial team and colleagues in the newsroom. There was no tip off from a political party. It was a document filed at the public registry that caught my attention because the deal was strange.

The document showed that Gaffarena was paying for part of a quarter of a palazzo in Valletta, which begged the question: why would you need part of a quarter of a palazzo unless you intended to get the rest of it?

In the following weeks, I was chasing documents related to the deal at every possible government department, but they could not be found where they should have been filed.

A few weeks later, a second similar document appeared showing Gaffarena had again bought another part of a quarter of a palazzo in the same building. That was when it became clear this was an ongoing scam that had to be stopped.

It eventually emerged that the documents related to the deal were being held at Gaffarena’s notary. This led to hours of sitting outside her office, refusing to leave without the documents.  When I was eventually seen, a grilling followed on why I needed them. She was told it was none of her business because the documents should have been public. She eventually released them against payment.

After the first story was published, the investigation continued over the next 10 weeks as families who had already been contacted by Gaffarena for their other parts of the property came forward with the knowledge they were about to be scammed.

One of the families refused to proceed with the deal, and Gaffarena even took them to court in a desperate attempt to get the deal finalised.

Gaffarena was buying different parts of the property for a cheap price from  these families, and then the government was following suit and expropriating only those parts bought by Gaffarena and compensating only him.

Then we traced the properties Gaffarena was being given by the government as payment for the expropriation. They had all been handpicked to add value to his existing properties. For example, land parcels in Żebbuġ given to Gaffarena as part of the controversial Valletta expropriation deal were strategically located behind another plot in Qormi he was also given.

The two parcels of land adjacent to each other in Żebbuġ, measuring a total of 26,223 square metres, were located behind another piece of agricultural land Gaffarena was squatting in at Qormi and on which he illegally built an entertainment venue with a pool. The venue is marketed for group dinner parties as Cavett Place, despite an enforcement notice issued by the planning authority in 2012.

All this happened under the Prime Minister’s watch. Worse, the department that enabled all this fell under his direct responsibility. So, in effect, the Prime Minister as an individual was suing the government he was responsible for. He now claims victory. This is Malta.

Former PN leader Simon Busuttil played a crucial role in this case coming to this conclusion. The PN had asked the National Audit Office to investigate the deal. It had concluded there was collusion between Gaffarena and government officials.

The Planning Parliamentary Secretary at the time, Michael Falzon, was forced to resign. He was then employed as a consultant for the Grand Harbour Regeneration Corporation a few months later. He is now back in Parliament. What accountability?

The PN, under its new leadership, was quick to point out following the court’s decision on Tuesday that it was proven right. Sure. Its mistake was that it did not call for political accountability in its rush to take credit before the government did.

Another mistake was that it did not acknowledge the contribution of investigative journalism at a time when the country is in turmoil over the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia in October and the independent press is under threat.

In the book published following Caruana Galizia’s assassination, Invicta, I explain how Caruana Galizia was the one to call me on the morning the story was published. She spent 20 minutes telling me the background to the family to make sure I knew what I was taking on. She fed me the information and then she backed up the story on her blog, Running Commentary.

Caruana Galizia understood my situation only too well, and the politicians now fighting among themselves to claim victory again show just what she faced in all the investigations she revealed. What she revealed on Pilatus Bank, that is now the subject of international scrutiny, she did alone when most doubted and questioned her – again, it was Busuttil who took up her cause.

The rest of the politicians who fail to support investigative journalism are doing a disservice to journalists who face these challenges alone.

Where were those now saying they faced a great risk for commenting on the scandal when I had to turn up in court to report the case in question only to find Gaffarena standing right behind me breathing down my neck at every turn? I still remember the smell of his breath.

The calls I received when the Gaffarena story broke were endless: “Do you have any idea who you are taking on? Do you know who this family is? Dawn jaslu”. I always said the same thing: “Someone has to do it”.

I know Caruana Galizia felt the same way in all she did because she was someone who could not stand injustice.

The concern that remains on the Gaffarena scandal is whether the court’s decision will be upheld. The Land Authority’s failure to defend itself in the case may lead to a reversal of the court’s judgements, lawyers working on the case told The Shift News.

It comes as no surprise that many have expressed scepticism on social media, asking what Gaffarena would get in return for giving this up. No question there. Gaffarena has already benefitted handsomely for his support of the Labour Party administration (the family supported the PN while that Party was in power).

The Gaffarena petrol station in Luqa continues to operate despite its illegalities. His ODZ land continues to host parties as a venue – without any permit – called Tac- Cavett (managed by an individual is known as Cavett). This was exposed repeatedly in media reports but not only was it not closed down, one of the areas handed to him by the government under the Gaffarena deal would have conveniently extended this area. He even applied to build an agritourism complex in the area.  In Siggiewi, he has a house that got a planning permit against all odds.

As Caruana Galizia said: Brass-necked Gaffarena carries on undaunted. So rather than falling over themselves to take credit, perhaps the political parties would do well to learn something out of this scandalous deal and decide to listen to those saying things must change in this country.


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