A raft of documents submitted to parliament by the Malta Tourism Authority (MTA) to justify the funnelling of €4.5 million of taxpayers’ funds in ‘marketing services’ by VistaJet do not provide any tangible proof of the actual services acquired.
Among the documents submitted to the Public Accounts Committee (PAC), which is scrutinising the secret contract revealed by The Shift, the MTA only listed a number of interviews and newspaper articles which it said were published as part of the deal.
While the actual contract was meant to provide publicity for Malta on international worldwide media networks, some of the articles provided by the MTA as proof of the hefty expense show news features which appeared on Labour’s One News, State broadcaster TVM and the GWU’s news portal Inews.
Asked for a copy of the ‘marketing plan’ referred in the contract for 2016, 2017 and 2018, the MTA only provided a half-page ‘marketing plan’ for 2016 and nothing for the rest of the duration of the contract.
The MTA has also failed to provide MPs with the quarterly invoices and accompanying material that VistaJet issued for 2017 and 2018 to justify its payments.
According to the contract, signed by Chairman Gavin Gulia on behalf of the MTA through a subsidiary company called Malta Marketing Ltd, the government agreed to pay VistaJet €1.5 million of public funds every year for ‘marketing and communications’ services by the private charter airline.
Ironically, the government company has not submitted its own audited accounts for many years, since at least 2012.
While invoices provided to parliament show that the MTA made its payments every year, before the actual services were provided, something unheard of in the marketing industry, top MTA officials could not explain what was actually paid for by the MTA.
Grilled by the PAC, the MTA’s Financial Controller Bryan Azzopardi, responsible for vetting and payments, said that he had just obeyed orders from above and did not see any documentation to justify the invoices he paid.
“As the MTA’s top financial official I just issued the payments as they were approved by others. I have no authority to challenge these payments,” he claimed.
Asked why the MTA paid €100,000 to VistaJet for ‘putting Malta at the centre of its map on its own website’, Azzopardi said he did not know. He pointed to former MTA CEO Paul Bugeja who, he said, pushed the invoices.
VistaJet is a private millionaires’ airline that does not bring tourists to Malta.
It has now turned out that some of the payments, amounting to hundreds of thousands of euro, were approved and passed onto the MTA by Josephine Farrugia, at the time the Head of an unknown entity – the Malta Aerospace Centre – that does not even form part of the MTA.
Farrugia, who is now a top official at Malta Enterprise, said this was on the instructions of then CEO Paul Bugeja. She also said that she was given the brief to take care of this ‘deal’ by then Tourism Minister Edward Zammit Lewis.
A review by The Shift of the documents provided to parliament to justify the payments did not find any specific reference to Malta’s attractiveness as a tourist destination; only references to VistaJet being registered in Malta.
VistaJet chairman Thomas Flohr was obliged to mention Malta in his interviews, according to the contract. This did not happen.
The fact that footage of VistaJet’s planes was aired during the interviews was enough publicity for Malta as the planes sported the 9H registration, according to Farrugia who approved some of these payments.
9H is the technical code used for planes registered under the Maltese flag. “Everyone knows that this means Malta,” Farrugia said.
In 2017, just a year after the signing of this ‘marketing’ agreement, VistaJet had hit the headlines in Malta during the unfolding of the Pilatus Bank scandal.
VistaJet had operated a mysterious flight to Azerbaijan during the night, just hours after Ali Sadr Hasheminejad, the former bank’s chairman, was caught on camera leaving the bank with bulging bags in the middle of the night.
Assassinated journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia had just reported that the owner of the third company related to government officials exposed in the Panama Papers, Egrant Inc, belonged to Michelle Muscat, wife of disgraced former prime minister Joseph Muscat.
He has since been found guilty on several counts in a US court, although no action against him was taken in Malta.