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Croatian authorities suing the man behind the White Flag in Malta

As Environment Minister Jose Herrera and Environment Commissioner Karmenu Vella launched White Flags in Malta, the Croatian was already wanted by authorities.

Curavic president Malta
Kristijan Curavic (left) with a smiling President of Malta to his right, flanked by Environment Minister Jose Herrera.

Kristijan Curavić, the man behind the White Flag ‘environmental’ scheme, is facing charges by the authorities in Croatia for creating a false invoice to claim costs after a project he promoted worth millions that was supposedly backed by Hollywood stars never happened, according to court documents.

On 30 October last year, the Municipal State Attorney’s Office of Rijeka, Croatia, filed an indictment against Kristijan Curavić that he issued a false invoice for HRK 47,970 (€6,500) to justify funds he received from the Tourist Board of the city of Crikvenica for an environmental project in the South Pole.

Croatia indictment Kristijan Curavic

It was an ambitious project Curavić was promoting in 2008 – a deep dive in the South Pole that would raise awareness about global warming – except it never happened despite the funds collected by Curavić. The project was supposed to cost €8 million, according to Kuravic’s proposal.

As Curavić did not go to the South Pole, State authorities in Croatia demanded a refund, court documents state. They show that Curavić submitted a false invoice as an attempt to avoid refunding the State authorities’ money. That worked for a while, until a full investigation in the case landed him in court anyway.

Curavić ran the White Flag project in Malta, charging the government and private sponsors €25,000 a flag to support a plastic-free marine environment, The Shift News revealed. In less than a year, Curavić secured seven flags on Malta and Gozo’s beaches thanks to the “ally from the start” found in Environment Minister Jose Herrera.

When The Shift News revealed what the Croatian was charging, and the fact that there was little to show the team was meeting the criteria for the flag they themselves set, the Environment Minister admitted no due diligence was done.

That resulted in Herrera not knowing that when he was smiling for photos next to Environment Commissioner Karmenu Vella launching a White Flag at Wied iz-Zurrieq in March 2018, Curavić was facing charges of fraud by the authorities in Croatia.

jose herrera white flag scam
Environment Minister Jose Herrera at a White Flag launch in Wied in Zurrieq, accompanied by Environment Commissioner Karmenu Vella and the CEO of the Malta Environment and Resources Authority Louise Spiteri.

In the meantime, Gozo Minister Justyne Caruana had committed to White Flags on all of Gozo’s beaches. Gozo already has three flags – one sponsored privately, and the other two committed by the Ministry. But the Minister would not say what amount of taxpayers’ money was promised to Curavić.

The Shift News’ revelations on the scheme stopped government and private sponsors committing more money to a seemingly fraudulent scheme. Private sponsors contacted by The Shift News would not say how much they gave Curavić for a project backed by the government, but they said they had no further working relationship with him.

In Croatia, as in Malta, Curavić used the supposed backing of the Prince Albert II of Monaco Foundation to gain funds. The foundation told The Shift News it was set to sue Curavić for use of its logo, just as one of the Board members listed on the different organisations set up by the Croatian to give a layer of credibility to his projects, human rights advocate Bianca Jagger, said it had no connection with his projects.

European Commissioner for Maritime Affairs and Fisheries Karmenu Vella (centre) with Kristijan Curavić to his right at Our Oceans conference in Bali in October 2018.

The only Maltese who lent his name to the project of Curavić – Steve Abela of Lord’s Gym – said he abandoned the project after The Shift News’ revelations. He also said Curavić left the country a few days after the first stories were published, adding he had no clue where the Croatian was.

The story in Croatia – how Curavić won the support of a couple of Ministries that then led to the whole failed project – is a copy of what happened in Malta once Curavić secured the support of government. He sold seven flags – a value of close to €200,000 on paper within a few months.

Media channels in Croatia report the testimony of an official involved in the transfer of money to Curavić. “A Croatian diver submitted a request to Primorska county to finance a new dive in the South Pole. He did the same to many other authorities. I had the opportunity to read these requests, but also to gain insight into the actual goals. The goal was to draw money from public authorities and companies owned by the government,” Hrvoje Pende, an employee of Primorsko-Goranska county said.

Kristijan Curavić
Kristijan Curavić with President Marie Louise Coleiro Preca and Environment Minister Jose Herrera.

He recounted how Curavić said he had a Hollywood A-list backing his project, from George Clooney and Brad Pitt to former US Presidential candidate Al Gore, winning the support of one Ministry to move on to the next.

Beyond the failed South Pole project, Curavić also ran a White Flag scheme in Croatia. The document below shows he charged HRK 200,000 (€27,000), which was similar to the asking price in Malta.

When charges were filed against him in spring last year in Croatia, he turned up in Malta with the same idea and found instant support.

Similarly, in Malta, Curavić used celebrity names to win the support of the Environment Ministry, except Herrera has failed to take responsibility for what he endorsed. He said simply, “I wasn’t scammed because I didn’t sign a contract”. He made no mention of the hundreds of thousands of euro Curavić got from private sponsors thanks to his support.

Ministers have fallen over themselves for photo opportunities with Curavić’s “positive” project, except nobody asked questions – from Herrera to the President of Malta Marie Louise Coleiro Preca to Prime Minister Joseph Muscat to Environment Commissioner Karmenu Vella, it seems Curavić got Labour in the bag, and with it all the relevant State and European Heads the government can reach.

A clip of the speech from CEO Louise Spiteri of the Malta Environment and Resources Authority (ERA) – the regulator – at the launch of the White Flag at Ghajn Tuffieha shows how an independent Authority took instructions from the government to “help these guys and work with them” even when they did not have the necessary permits.

In October last year, Spiteri announced how the Environment Ministry supported the project. “He immediately contacted me and said, ‘Louise, we need to help these guys and work with them’. Your passion and also your energy for this initiative was very well transmitted to us as an Authority and also to our Ministry,” she said.

She was almost apologetic in noting that “as a regulator I have to admit that you have to have the necessary permits and what not but these are issues we are working on and there is always collaboration”.

Spiteri needs to understand that the ERA is a regulator that should be acting as a watchdog, not taking instructions on who to support. The failure of the regulator is what resulted in this situation.

There has been no public statement from the ERA after a storm washed so much plastic onto Ghajn Tuffieha Bay – a protected Natura 2000 site – that government workers had to be called in an emergency situation for a clean up.

The plastic waste washed onto the beach was cleaned up as a result of a coordinated effort between the Environment Ministry, the ERA, Ambjent Malta and NGO No to Plastics, according to a statement. Where was the White Flag team? And why did the ERA not hold them accountable?

The situation has led to outrage from environmentalists. Clean ups in Malta are regularly done by volunteers with no support from the government, raising legitimate questions on why the government chose to support an unknown with a dodgy past over genuine efforts in the country.

While Kristijan Curavić fled the country, local volunteers from Malta Clean Up continued with their regular clean ups at Ghajn Tuffieha – a beach awarded a White Flag valued at huge cost – except the White Flag International team was nowhere to be seen.

“Seeing how this story unfolds, makes me more and more upset. The ministry now had a month to reconsider the endorsement of this scheme and yet we haven’t got any answers. I want to know, why? A government endorsing a project must make sure that the what they endorse is genuine. If that’s not policy, then it’s about time it is,” said Camilla Applegren of Malta Clean Up.

Curavić has threatened to sue both The Shift as well as Applegren for exposing the story, except he chose to leave the country instead.

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