The Lands Authority is legally bound to inform “the commissioner of police and the minister” if any irregularity constitutes a criminal offence but despite the court’s decision to annul the exchange of property in the controversial Gaffarena deal the police have not taken any criminal action.
Before the courts revoked the deals made by the Lands Department that saw Marco Gaffarena given parcels of government land in exchange for the requisition of a Valletta building, the National Audit Office (NAO) had said there was collusion between government officials and Gaffarena.
According to the repealed Lands Act and the new Lands Authority Act the commissioner of police is obliged to arraign all the persons who appeared on the deeds which were declared null. The previous law, which was in force when the controversial deals were made in 2015, states that “proceedings for an offence under this Act shall be taken by the Police decided by the Court of Magistrates as a court of criminal judicature.”
The new Lands Authority law which came into force in 2017 also makes it clear that “whenever, and as soon as, the Chief Audit Officer firmly establishes the existence of suspected cases of irregularities and, or suspected cases of criminal offences concerning the responsibilities of the auditee under review, the Chairperson of the Board shall, if the Chief Audit Officer is of the opinion that the irregularity, if proved, would constitute a criminal offence, immediately inform the Commissioner of Police and the Minister.”
Following the court decision, the police – who can initiate criminal proceedings based on information of any criminal activity – have not taken any action against Gaffarena and the land he was given has not yet been returned to the State.
Two contracts were struck down by court which included a 6,000 square metre parcel of land in Ta’ Kandja, Siġġiewi, which was overvalued by €615,000, and another parcel of land in Naxxar, measuring 5,000 square metres which was overvalued by €467,000. This land should be returned back to the public unless the court’s decision is reversed at the appeal stage.
Dismissing the revocation as an “exercise founded on a political basis” Gaffarena has indeed filed an appeal, arguing that the judgment is null because it was given regarding an entity – the Commissioner for Lands – that no longer existed by the time the judgment was handed down.
Moreover, a Sliema house which was part of the €3.4 million cash-and-land deals the government paid Gaffarena was demolished after the court struck down the deal.
Questions sent to the Attorney General on whether government intends to take any criminal action against Gaffarena or anyone involved in what the NAO described as collusion remain unanswered.
The scandal was revealed by The Shift News journalist Caroline Muscat who at the time was a senior journalist for The Times of Malta in 2015. The government had paid €1.65 million for part ownership of the Valletta property that Gaffarena had bought for a fraction of the price just weeks earlier.
The investigation stopped the transfer of millions more and protected the families owning the property from further exploitation. Gaffarena had acquired parcels of land as part of the deal equivalent to the size of more than 10 football pitches – the total estimate of the deal that at that point had managed to go through was €3.4 million, in cash and parcels of land, to Gaffarena.
In its judgment, the court concluded that the government had acquired part of the building which is owned by all owners but only compensated one owner so it deemed the contracts invalid. This is in line with conclusions in the NAO report that compensation should have been proportionally paid to all the co-owners.
The six government properties and parcels of land which Gaffarena got in exchange for part of a building in Valletta were overvalued by €1.8 million, the court confirmed in its judgement.