Arts Council flouting procurement rules despite NAO warning

The Malta Arts Council, with former Labour TV CEO Albert Marshall as its chief, has continued to flout procurement rules, dishing out direct orders totalling over €1.2 million despite a stern warning by the National Audit Office (NAO) in 2018.

An audit by the NAO had found several financial shortcomings in the Arts Council’s administration of public funds and “excessive use of direct orders”. The Arts Council had argued that direct orders were necessary due to the “artistic merit” of projects.

Despite the NAO warning, the following year – between January and June 2019 – the Arts Council issued another 80 direct orders with a total value of more than €1.2 million, according to information recently published in the Government Gazette.

The Arts Council, which the NAO report states was not even filing proper financial statements, also continued to ignore provisions in public procurement regulations, which obliges it to regularly publish the list of direct orders every six months.

The latest list published in the Government Gazette dates back more than a year (June 2019). The law places the onus of responsibility on the Permanent Secretary of the relevant Ministry.

Albert Marshall was awarded the National Order of Merit last year. Photo: DOI / Omar Camilleri.

A close look at the list of direct orders issued by the Arts Council for the first half of 2019 shows Lou Bondi continued to receive his €54,000 direct order.

As a consultant to the Council, Bondi has also taken over the job of singer Willie Mangion to manage the long-awaited ‘Rock Hub’ project for local bands. The project was announced just before the 2017 elections by then Culture Minister Owen Bonnici. There have been no further details since.

Others who benefited from public funds include Sandro Kitcher, a former cameraman at One TV, who was given a €24,000 contract as a ‘cultural events technical consultant’.

Ignatius Farrugia – the Labour Party’s deputy mayor in Zurrieq – is receiving €9,500 “to promote local councils’ cultural activities”. The council contracted the now infamous Zammit Tabona’s Captain Morgan through a direct order to supply the council with a boat for a performance at a cost of €8,813.

Giuseppe Schembri Bonaci was given a direct order to act as artistic director for the ‘Strada Stretta concept’ for €40,500.

The council dished out hundreds of thousands of euro to commission artists for various events, as well as to procure productions without any competitive call among the artistic community.

Balzunetta Productions was paid more than €93,000 for a musical featuring singer Freddie Portelli. The company explained in comments to The Shift that, in this case, the amount referred to was the box office revenue generated by the musical, which used a ticketing system provided by the Arts Council. The Arts Council then transferred this box office revenue to Balzunetta Productions.

The New Victorians were paid €97,000 for an ‘artistic performance’ to commemorate Sette Giugno.

The Arts Council also hit the headlines recently due to an unprecedented €500,000 in public funds given to a private film production on the same theme. Following a deal with Juggernaut Ltd – a private production company owned by Jean Pierre Magro, Pedja Miletic and Aaron Briffa, the Arts Council formed a joint venture – Just Noise Ltd – and forked out half the investment needed for the film.

Marshall, the Arts Council Chairman, and Mario Azzopardi (a film producer for the Labour Party) are representing the government on this private initiative.

The Malta Film Producers Association, which represents film producers in Malta, was harshly critical of this deal due to its lack of transparency and the State aid received.

Falkun Film’s Pierre Ellul, a renowned film producer who has worked with Hollywood productions in Malta and works extensively to bring foreign productions to the country, slammed the decision to fund a film widely deemed to be nothing more than expensive propaganda.

He questioned the €500,000 in public funds given to the production “while the rest of us mortals have to jump through all the hoops and processes”.

The article has been updated with comments from Balzunetta Productions.

                           
                               

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