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‘Spoke to Lionel’: Documents reveal parallel system for MTA sponsorships

There were two ways for an event organiser to apply for a sponsorship – either through official channels or the “Lionel route”.

Lionel Gerada at the Super League Triathlon event fronted by Xandru Grech that got €600,000 from MTA funds in its first year, reaching up to €2 million over three years.

Event organisers applying for Malta Tourism Authority sponsorship money had two options – the official channels or through Lionel Gerada, the man in the eye of the storm for dishing out over one-third of a €6 million budget to ‘friends’.

Applications for hundreds of thousands of euro worth of sponsorships were submitted to the Malta Tourism Authority, whose contracts are being scrutinised by Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee. They immediately picked up on an important detail – a number of sponsorship applications were missing a crucial entry – the name of the applicant. Instead, there was a little side note that said: “Spoke to Lionel”.

This unorthodox way of applying for MTA sponsorships raised eyebrows at the PAC as its members grilled deputy CEO of MTA Leslie Vella about this cryptic note made on the applications.

“There are multiple instances, on the list you provided before this committee, where the name of the applicant is missing but there is a note saying ‘referred to Lionel.’ What does this mean?” asked Nationalist MP Beppe Fenech Adami.

The amounts are not trivial. One application was for a sponsorship of €800,000 from the MTA. It is not clear whether these applications were approved or not.

Vella, however, insisted that he did not know the details of particular cases. “It generally means that we are being alerted about the communication they had. But everyone still had to go through the official channels”.

Fenech Adami pointed out there were two ways for an event organiser to apply for a sponsorship – either through official channels or the “Lionel route”.

Lionel Gerada (far right) stands next to MTA CEO Johann Buttigieg as he speaks with Tourism Minister Julia Farrugia Portelli and her head of secretariat Reuben Sciberras (one of the thugs who kept journalists locked in Castille in December 2019).

This was a “fast-track or a parallel system, if you will, to the official one that everyone should use. Do you think that this is acceptable?” he asked Vella.

Vella explained that every application still had to go through the sponsorship committee. When asked to confirm who the note was referring to, Vella said he “supposed it referred to Lionel Gerada.”

The Shift revealed how the annual budget of the MTA increased by millions when Gerada took over as head of events – thousands of these were given in sponsorships to a small group of events organisers to hold their own events.

In the summer of 2018 alone,  the group received close to €2 million of taxpayer funds through various companies held by the same individuals. That same year, his first acting as MTA Head of Events, the budget ballooned from €2 million to €6 million in 12 months.

Gerada’s presence at the sponsorship committee meetings irked other event organisers who pointed out to The Shift it was not a level playing field. He was appointed to the role by former minister Konrad Mizzi, also a close friend, even though he has a history of criminal offences which include fraud and embezzlement of funds.

Nationalist MP Chris Said asked Vella point blank whether the anonymous requests had received the money.

“We don’t get to know if the sponsorship was refused or not according to the list provided by the MTA. Was there any follow-up to these requests? Is there anything to show for decisions taken?” Said asked.

Vella said that no minutes of these committee meetings were ever kept and, when pushed for an answer as to whether this was good practice, he said: “I don’t have an answer”.

He insisted that budgets and sponsorship funds did not fall under his direct responsibility and, when asked how the costs spiralled out of control, Vella said he always assumed that there were enough funds for these events.

The aim of the sponsorship committee was to help out event organisers and encourage events during shoulder months. However, as pointed out by members of the committee, 25% of the funds in 2018 went to a party held on 15 August, the peak of the summer and tourist season.

Meanwhile, the Tourism Ministry has remained completely silent about whether it will be taking any action against Gerada and has refused to reply to questions sent by The Shift.

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