A Freedom of Information (FOI) request by The Shift reveals that the Environment Ministry paid close to €4,000 to cover the costs for officials and team members of the White Flag organisation led by Croatian Kristijan Curavić – for a cleanup at Wied iz-Zurrieq that never occurred.
A document received by the Shift reveals that a payment of €3,867 was sent by the Environment Ministry to Whiteflag’s Croatian bank account to cover costs for the launch of the government-endorsed scheme in March 2018.
The promoted cleanup never occurred, according to divers on the site who spoke to The Shift. They also said they could not get hold of Curavić after the event and were left unpaid for their assistance.
The documentary evidence received as a result of The Shift’s FOI request counters claims by then Environment Minister Jose Herrera that no funds from his Ministry had been given to Curavić, who The Shift revealed was facing charges for fraud in his home country for a similar project.
Curavić is denying these charges ever occurred, despite evidence published by The Shift.
On Tuesday, through a letter received from his lawyer, Curavić demanded that The Shift transfer €300,000 into a bank account of his choosing. The Shift has refused, standing by its reporting and publishing the letter received.
In what has become a recurring pattern of FOI request deadlines being ignored or rejected, the Environment Ministry first missed the deadline, and then presented a select number of documents despite the request being approved in full.
The deadline for the FOI request submitted by The Shift was first extended because the Authority needed to “consult third parties”. The Environment Ministry then missed its own deadline and had to be chased with several emails to provide an answer.
The request was finally handled five days after the deadline, but some of the points from the original request remained unanswered. “The Ministry has no further comments to make on this matter,” the Ministry said in response to questions by The Shift.
The FOI request had been submitted to clarify financial questions related to Malta’s first White Flag, placed at Wied Iz-Zurrieq in March 2018. The Environment Minister, who had said no funds had been given to Curavić, was a keynote speaker at the event together with then European Commissioner Karmenu Vella.
The Shift also attempted to obtain all correspondence between the Environment Minister and White Flag International, but the (separate) request was denied.
The few documents provided by the Ministry seemed to be an attempt to explain the decision taken by Minister Herrera to endorse a project which was later revealed by The Shift to be a scam. The Shift reasserts this based on documentary evidence and because we have been following the case for more than a year in which we spoke to a number of stakeholders.
The invoice shows that the Environment Ministry was asked to cover the cost of seven flights, as well as fees for four divers. The initial correspondence mentioned three official White Flag divers, but the only divers seen in photos taken on the day were not the promised team from the White Flag organisation but four divers from a local diving school.
Curavić approached the divers again before the ceremony in March. They told The Shift that, because White Flag had been endorsed by the Environment Minister, they felt no need to doubt that it was genuine, and they agreed to participate without the issue of payment settled. They were never paid, they told The Shift.
They confirmed that it was made clear to them on the day of the Wied iz-Zurrieq White Flag launch that no dive would happen that day, and they would instead be involved in the cleanup project at a later stage, but they never heard from Curavić again.
During the ceremony, held in cooperation with the Environment Ministry in March 2018, Curavić certified the area as plastic-free without having done a cleanup.
“Welcome to the first certification of Certified Safe Marine Area in Malta,” he had said. “With this certification, this place will receive a special award which has only been given 12 or 13 times around the world. And this is the area that will be completely certified for no plastic waste (sic)”.
The divers’ fee of €2,000, seen on the invoice, was also conveniently subtracted from the total amount as a ‘discount’ – when in fact no divers from White Flag were present.
Questions sent to the Environment Ministry to clarify the expenses remain unanswered at the time of writing.
Former Gozo Minister Justyne Caruana, who signed a contractual agreement for two White Flags worth €29,000, also refused to answer further questions.
A spokesman for the Environment Minister said, “As outlined in the documentation submitted, the referred €3,867 was paid for ancillary services outlined in the quote for the Wied Iz-Zurrieq event only. It was not a sponsorship agreement nor a long/term commitment”.
And yet, for months after the ceremony, the Environment Minister and other officials appeared with Curavić for photo opportunities promoting his project. Curavić left Malta soon after The Shift’s revelations.
The Shift’s investigation also stopped attempts by Curavić to launch a new project for White Flags in The Seychelles, for which Curavić is now demanding compensation from The Shift for stopping 40 White Flags in his next scam there – each valued at €29,000. The Seychelles government withdrew from the agreement following revelations on Curavić’s scam in Malta that took thousands from taxpayers and private companies and gave nothing in return.
Igaming companies in Malta told The Shift they had sought the government’s assistance to recover their money after they endorsed the project based on the recommendations by those close to the authorities.
Curavić left Malta soon after The Shift exposed the scam and his fake endorsements and after everyone on the island connected to him either abandoned him or chased him for money. But the government has made no effort to support private companies’ attempts to recover their funds or any attempt to recover taxpayer money spent by the Environment Ministry or the “lucrative deal” signed with the Gozo Ministry.