The asset declarations of Justice and Culture Minister Owen Bonnici’s over the years draw a picture that makes him look like one of Malta’s ‘poorest’ MPs.
His declarations reflect his marital situation change in 2015. The only matter of note is a flat he bought in Valletta in 2017. Since what he declared made it seem like he acquired this property at an incredible bargain, the purchase merited more scrutiny.
Like his Parliamentary Secretary for Cleaning, Deo Debattista, the Minister’s declared bank loan for the purchase of property appears not to match the market value.
The probe is part of a series investigating the asset declarations submitted to parliament by Ministers and Parliamentary Secretaries over seven years.
Bonnici bought the flat located on top of the one he already owned (Flat 1) in Old Mint Street to create what would appear to be a bachelor duplex pad on the first two floors of the building (Flat 1 and 2).
Despite the spike in property prices in recent years, and the surge in demand for properties in Valletta in particular in the lead up to the European Capital of Culture the following year, Bonnici claims to have acquired this property at a bargain price in his asset declarations.
He declares a mortgage on this property from a bank in Malta that would set the value of the flat in Old Mint Street at just over €80,000.
Since Flat 3 in the same building, sitting on top of Bonnici’s latest purchase, is available for rental it offers a good idea of the size of the three-bedroom apartment.
The flat above Bonnici’s was split into two and each rents out for around €75 a day in low season (November), depending on the number of people staying in each space. Prices increase significantly in high season, when both apartments are sold out.
The value of a property is linked to its potential rental value. A quick search of properties for sale by real estate agents shows that similar three-bedroom properties in Valletta carry a price tag of €600,000 at the lower end of the scale.
Yet Bonnici’s declaration of assets suggests a figure that’s a fraction of that at just over €80,000 only two years ago, based on the mortgage he declared.
Bonnici’s declarations show he appears not to save much of his income – between 2012-2016 his savings hovered between €1,000 to €2,000. So the purchase of the property could not have come from anywhere but the bank loan, according to what Bonnici declared. Funny how after buying this property his savings actually went up to €8,000 – €9,000.
This would suggest a number of possibilities: The Justice Minister landed an incredible deal, or he may have undeclared assets, or that the loan from the Malta bank was supplementing a loan from elsewhere.
Since the asset declarations of Maltese Ministers and Parliamentary Secretaries are extremely scant in detail, they do not include the value of properties listed or the names of banks supplying the loans, then a bank balance in Cyprus or Dubai, for example, would not show up.
Bonnici’s Parliamentary Secretary for Cleaning, Deo Debattista, offers a similar puzzle in his declaration of assets. Debattista declares that he bought an apartment in Mellieha, but the amounts he lists as loans and savings used for the property do not add up.
Debattista’s apartment forms part of the View Point development at Mellieħa Heights. A conservative estimate would set the value at over €350,000, based on prices advertised.
In his asset declarations filed since he was given the role in 2017, Debattista states that a promise of sale agreement on the property was signed in 2017, and that it was bought the following year.
In 2018, his income as Parliamentary Secretary doubled from €33,910.22 to €60,796.06 (like that of his colleagues). That year, Debattista states that he took out a €50,000 loan and used up €68,000 from his savings for the apartment.
Even if Debattista and his family somehow survived on air during 2018 and he used up his entire salary (€60,796), this would still leave a shortfall of well over €100,000.
While a deposit was probably paid when the promise of sale agreement was signed, this would have had to be 50% of the cost paid upfront for Debattista’s asset declarations to make sense. The deposit imposed by law and usually paid on promise of sale agreements is 10%, according to public information by notaries and lawyers.
The lack of detail provided in the asset declarations of Ministers and Parliamentary Secretaries make real in-depth scrutiny impossible because the information omitted could completely alter an individual’s net worth, the probe revealed.
The “investments” section of the asset declarations of, for example, the Parliamentary Secretary responsible for financial services, cryptocurrency, gaming and the prevention of money laundering, Silvio Schembri, could mean a portfolio of investments worth over €20,000 or over €2 million, depending on details he left out.
The asset declarations for 2016 were not even filed, and no alarms were raised.
The requirement for MPs and, more importantly, Cabinet members to make and publish asset declarations is an essential tool to prevent corruption by helping to detect unjustified variations in wealth, as well as to spotlight conflicts of interest.
The aim is to increase transparency, but the information being offered in Malta leaves the public none the wiser.
Note: In a Facebook post in Maltese, Bonnici denied that Flats 1 and 2 that he owns at 99, Old Mint Street are the two shown in the picture. He said the low value of flat 2 was due to its size, but would not state the amount at which he purchased it, despite repeated requests. Bonnici referred The Shift to “public” documents that we are still chasing in order to assess his claims.