The Office of the Prime Minister dished out close to €6 million in direct orders during the last three years of Joseph Muscat at the helm, most of which went to supporters of the governing Labour Party and Michelle Muscat’s Marigold Foundation.
An analysis by The Shift of information tabled in Parliament by Prime Minister Robert Abela this week shows that services commissioned by Castille between 2017 and 2019 through direct orders largely went to the same group of companies controlled by a few individuals, all connected to the Labour Party.
The Labour Party’s current favourite propaganda host Karl Stagno Navarra is listed among those who benefited generously from the Office of the Prime Minister. On top of his earnings from the public purse for his ‘consultancy’ roles at Transport Malta, Air Malta and Malta Enterprise, Stagno Navarra also received more than €60,000 from the Prime Minister’s Office in three years – at €20,000 per year.
Public funds must have been a blessing for the fraudster with a list of creditors chasing him. His fortunes took a turn for the better when Labour came to power, using the public’s generosity. No wonder he told the nation to light a candle for Muscat when hundreds of thousands of citizens took to the streets over two months to demand the former Prime Minister’s resignation.
The three-year list of direct orders from the Prime Minister’s Office, submitted to Parliament following several requests by Opposition MP Claudette Buttigieg, reads like a directory of Labour Party supporters.
The web development firm linked to the massive data leak from the Lands Authority website in 2018, Webee Ltd, continued to benefit from hundreds of thousands of euro through direct orders even after the massive data breach revealed by The Shift and The Times of Malta in 2018.
Webee, a website design company owned by Roderick Bartolo who worked on Labour’s IT marketing and website image in the general elections of 2013 and 2017, received €225,000 in direct orders in the last three years. Most of the jobs were commissioned during the electoral campaign years. The company’s auditor is Clayton Bartolo, now Parliamentary Secretary for Financial Services.
Ikona Artworks, an unknown advertising agency until it made a name for itself following ridicule on social media of ‘artworks’ placed around Valletta for the European Capital of Culture in 2018, was paid more than €630,000 for “advertising and marketing” services when Kurt Farrugia was Muscat’s Head of Communications.
Farrugia was transferred to Head of Malta Enterprise with a financial package of over €120,000 a year in the calm before the storm that led to Muscat’s resignation following street protests for two months at the end of 2019.
Owned by Joel Saliba and Margaret Pace, with Nexia BT acting as their auditors, Ikona Artworks saw its fortune change overnight since Labour returned to power.
The company and its directors played an active role in marketing and advertising in electoral campaigns for the Labour Party since 2013.
Aaron Briffa, who spent 20 years as a graphic designer with Labour’s ONE TV, was also given several direct orders through his company AB Creative Media, set up in the year the Labour Party gained power in 2013. Briffa worked on Michelle Muscat’s Marigold Foundation’s image, including the famous swimming marathons.
Last year, Briffa was also involved in another scandalous contract, through the State-controlled Arts Council and the Film Commission.
Together with Jean Pierre Magro, also a former OPM operative, and Pedja Miletic, Briffa formed a joint venture with the Arts Council, with the latter forking an unprecedented €500,000 of taxpayer funds for a film on the events of Sette Giugno.
This film has not yet seen the light of the day. Its aim and sponsorship has left members of the film industry fuming on possible illegal state funding dished out through direct order.
The Malta Arts Council is managed by Albert Marshall, a former CEO of Labour’s ONE TV.
Sharp Shoot media, a small TV production company owned by Justin Farrugia, brother of former OPM and Labour spokesman, Kurt, also benefitted from direct orders by the same office – over and above the tens of thousands of euro paid to Farrugia’s company for programmes aired on TVM. The company even managed to rent office space within the State broadcaster’s building.
The information tabled in Parliament showed the value of direct orders increased considerably during the years when the country was facing an election.
Suppliers known to support the Labour Party’s events, such as mass meetings and tent discussions, received a raft of direct orders from the OPM.
Carmelo Magro, the owner of TEC Ltd and other companies connected to stage building and event organisation, was a major beneficiary of the OPM funds during 2017 and 2019, both years where Malta had general or MEP elections.
Magro was the so-called ‘whistleblower’ in the controversy surrounding former PN Finance Minister Tonio Fenech, and he was compensated by €1 million in government contracts soon after. On top of the millions he received, he was put on the State payroll together with his wife.
Apart from direct orders and contracts to TEC Ltd, public funds were also funnelled to Magro through less known companies owned by the same former Enemalta employee, including Formac Ltd and Investor Ideas Ltd.
Other companies involved in PL campaigns, such as lighting specialists Nexos also made a killing on OPM direct order list. Its former Managing Director, Keith Chetcuti, who in 2018 set up a new events company, also started appearing regularly on the OPM’s direct orders list as soon as his Ican Ltd was registered.
Hamilton Travel, owned by veteran Labour businessman and broadcaster Normal Hamilton, also former High Commissioner in London, was the OPM’s favourite travel partner in the last three years, receiving a raft of direct orders surpassing the €250,000 mark.
The list also shows some very well-connected individuals receiving handouts from the OPM.
These include Patrick Dalli, husband of European Commissioner for Equality Helena Dalli, who was paid a controversial €15,000 for a painting. Justice Minister Edward Zammit Lewis is also the list receiving direct orders during the time he lost his place in the Cabinet. They are joined by Veronique Dalli, a former ONE journalist and sister of Labour MEP Miriam Dalli, and William Lewis who is the organising secretary of the Labour Party.
Prime Minister Robert Abela made it a point to emphasise in Parliament that all these direct orders were approved by the Finance Ministry.