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Secret €4.5 million ‘deal’ with VistaJet revealed

VistaJet made headlines in 2017 when it operated a flight to Azerbaijan after Pilatus Bank owner Ali Sadr Hasheminejad was caught leaving the bank with bags of documents suspected to contain evidence on Egrant.

The press conference for which VistaJet charged taxpayers €50,000.

Some €4.5 million of taxpayer’s money was funnelled into VistaJet (a private charter airline for millionaires) between 2016 and 2018, a confidential contract being revealed by The Shift shows.

Through the lucrative deal, signed by Malta Tourism Authority (MTA) Chairman Gavin Gulia, on the instructions of then Tourism Minister Edward Zammit Lewis, VistaJet were paid €1.5 million of public funds every year as ‘compensation’ for “communication and marketing” services given by the private charter airline.

VistaJet made headlines in 2017 when two Pilatus Bank officials including Ali Sadr Hasheminejad were caught on camera leaving the bank in the middle of the night with bags hours after assassinated journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia reported that Panama company Egrant Inc belonged to Michelle Muscat.

VistaJet had operated a flight to Azerbaijan that night, leading to suspicions it had taken Ali Sadr and documentary evidence out of the country. A company spokesman had confirmed the flight to Baku but insisted it was just a ferry flight.

Soon after, The MTA had given a €1 million sponsorship to VistaJet, a private business airline that does not bring tourists to Malta. The contract being revealed shows that was not the only payment the MTA generously gave VistaJet.

The ‘marketing services’ given by the airline, according to the contract the MTA kept secret, mostly concerned the uploading of marketing material about Malta on Ipads placed on VistaJet flights.

It also included payment for the rebranding of the private airline’s corporate image and the creation of opportunities for the Tourism Minister to appear on interviews in “prominent business-related publications” and TV programmes.

The highly controversial contract, which is now expected to be scrutinised by Parliament’s Public Affairs Committee (PAC), also stipulated an unconventional clause obliging the MTA to pay VistaJet €1.5 million a year upfront, even before any ‘marketing’ services were provided.

VistaJet MTA invoice
An invoice issued by VistaJet to the Malta Tourism Authority for €1.5 million.

The Shift is informed that while the MTA has actually paid the full €4.5 million to VistaJet, questions were raised by various quarters, including at the MTA, on whether the services paid for were provided in full.

“There are serious suspicions that some of the invoices were either inflated or ‘produced’ in order to justify payments,” a source at the MTA said.

Despite specific requests by Parliament many weeks ago to supply the actual information related to the services given, the MTA has not yet managed to produce the information requested.

According to an invoice issued in April 2016, seen by The Shift,  just a few weeks after the signing of this deal, VistaJet charged the MTA €50,000 for organising a short press conference at its offices in Luqa in which Minister Zammit Lewis was present and said a few words.

According to the same invoice, the MTA paid €100,000 to VistaJet to place Malta at “the centre of its map” in its publicity material.

Through another invoice, in June 2016, the MTA accepted to pay VistaJet €50,000 for an interview about the same airline on international TV network CNBC, and another €50,000 for 200 views on its Ipads.

Other invoices show the direct payment of €1.5 million straight from public coffers without any records or explanation of the actual services provided.

The EU has strict rules on State aid to airlines even if this is ‘disguised’ as other services.

Owned by VistaJet Group Ltd, the Malta-registered company is controlled by its Swiss founder Thomas Flohr who lives in Dubai. The holding company is owned by a web of different companies, three registered in Dubai and another in the Bahamas.

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