The Malta Tourism Authority (MTA) has once again been caught in controversy over millions dished out to a small group of event organisers as it emerged that an economic impact study the Authority used to justify its spending was actually commissioned by those benefitting from taxpayer money.
The study was raised by MTA Chairman Gavin Gulia when he was grilled by the parliamentary committee that is scrutinising the Authority’s expenditure after its events budget tripled when former Tourism Minister Konrad Mizzi’s political canvasser was appointed to head the department.
Gulia justified the increase by quoting “the positive results” of an economic impact study “commissioned’ by the MTA”.
He said the study carried out by economist Gordon Cordina showed the sponsorship money was well spent as the parties attracted thousands of guests who came to Malta for these events.
Asked by Nationalist MP Chris Said about how the study had arrived at these specific figures and whether it was the MTA that had supplied the data, Gulia said: “I do not commission studies and then interfere on how they’re done. If you want, ask Gordon Cordina, because I don’t know how he got his data”.
The MPs representing the government on the Public Accounts Committee then mocked the Opposition for “doubting Dr Cordina’s work” by asking such questions.
This week, the parliamentary committee called Cordina to justify his study. It was immediately clear that the MTA chairman was factually wrong.
“This study was not conducted by the MTA, but I was commissioned to do it by the 356 Entertainment Group,” Cordina said. The group includes Edward Zammit Tabona, a Labour donor and part of the Fortina Group that was given concessions for turning prime public land sold to them for tourism purposes into residential units on the Tigne front worth millions.
The group’s interests were also safeguarded by the rental of tourist boats during the coronavirus pandemic to host migrants outside Maltese territorial waters that achieved no real aim except for revenue for the group during months when businesses were suffering.
Cordina, a former Head at the National Statistics Office and now the government’s nominee to head Bank of Valletta, made it clear that the data on which his study was based was supplied to him by the party organisers themselves.
“Did you verify the data?” the MPs asked.
Cordina said that was not his remit.
He said the data supplied was checked for consistency and it “made sense”, when considering the normal tourism capacity of the island.
He also said that, in most cases, the data was based on “projections made by the party organisers themselves and not actual data”.
Cordina admitted that he was not given any breakdown of how the data had been obtained.
His statements come in the wake of revelations that the MTA budget went from €2 million to €6 million in 2018 as soon as Mizzi appointed Lionel Gerada as a ‘person of trust’. At the time, Gerada was not even officially appointed as Head of the Department, as the former CEO Paul Bugeja confirmed. This did not stop Gerada from signing off on deals claiming the title.
356 Entertainment Group were major beneficiaries of these funds. One example is Summer Daze, held in August when the tourism season is at its peak, had cost the MTA over €1 million given through public funds.
Although the MTA did not yet divulge the funds it forked out in 2019, The Shift is informed that 356 Entertainment Group and related companies continued to prosper.
Apart from Edward Zammit Tabona, the major beneficiaries of MTA funds are companies owned by Gerald Debono, Trevor Camilleri and Carlo Baldacchino.