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Police find ‘no wrongdoing’ in fraudulent declaration of ownership

The site being developed in Qala, Gozo.

In a case assigned to Assistant Police Commissioner Ian Abdilla, the police have found “no wrongdoing” in connection with false declarations of ownership made in Planning Authority applications in four out of a cluster of six applications for a sprawling block of flats in Qala.

The block of flats, which number more than 150 flats if all designed flats are counted (including the latest application for 64 currently suspended), are being developed by a company called Excel Investments Limited, whose majority shareholder is property magnate Joseph Portelli.

The development with its designed facilities outback sprawls over an area larger than three football grounds, making it one of Gozo’s largest-ever property developments.

The project has been put together in stages in different applications filed by different individuals over the span of two years. The gross floor area would have exceeded 30,000 square metres if all the parts had been put in a single application, something that would have triggered an Environment Impact Assessment screening by the Environment and Resources Authority.

This would have led to greater scrutiny as well as the involvement of the Qala Local Council in the Planning Board meeting deciding on the application.

The Qala Local Council and the NGO Din L-Art Ħelwa two months ago filed legal proceedings for revocation of two of the permits in which they say that applicants made false declarations of ownership.

The two applicants – Chloe Portelli, daughter of Joseph Portelli, and his business partner Daniel Refalo – declared themselves in their respective applications to be “the sole owner of the entire site indicated on the site plan.”

They made that declaration in four applications pertaining to two of the parts within the larger development. At the time that they submitted the applications and up to the point of planning permits being granted, the land was held under promise of sale agreement by Excel Investments Limited, whose shareholders are Joseph Portelli, Daniel Refalo and Mark Agius. A promise of sale agreement does not confer legal ownership.

Legal sources have told The Shift that such declarations, if proved, are a criminal offence under Article 188 of the Criminal Code, with punishment ranging from a fine to imprisonment of up to two years.

Timothy Alden, leader of Partit Demokratiku, wrote to the then (Acting) Police Commissioner around five months ago to request investigation, among other things, into the false declarations of ownership. In an additional email, he also drew attention to a batching plant in the west of Gozo. Alden copied his email to Interior Minister Byron Camilleri as well as Environment Minister Aaron Farrugia.

In correspondence seen by The Shift, Acting Commissioner Carmelo Magri, wrote to Assistant Commissioner Ian Abdilla to “investigate and report [back]”.

Asked about the outcome of Alden’s report to the police, a police spokesperson said two weeks ago that “it has been investigated by the Police and no wrongdoing was found.”

Proof that the applicants had no ownership of the land covered by the application permits can be seen in documents at the Land Registry as well as in notarial deeds which show that Excel Investments Limited signed a promise of sale agreement on the land in question on 14 February 2018. All of these documents, as well as the development application forms, are publicly available.

Article 188 qualifies that “knowingly mak[ing] a false declaration or statement, or give false information” would be an offence if the intention is to “gain any advantage or benefit for himself or others.”

On the basis of this qualification, the court of Criminal Appeal, presided by Judge Edwina Grima, acquitted a man who had made a false declaration of sole ownership in a development application in 2016.

The man had, with the same wording used in the current applications, declared himself to be “the sole owner of the entire site indicated on the site plan” on land that he co-owned with others. He was prosecuted by Jonathan Ferris, the Inspector who was later seconded to, and then dismissed by, the Financial Intelligence and Analysis Unit (FIAU).  He is now fighting a case for unfair dismissal on the basis of discrimination in front of the Industrial Tribunal.

In the 2016 case, the co-owners declared that they had given their consent for the accused to file a development application and had eventually written to the Planning Authority to proceed with the applications.

The court said the man, as he had testified, had ticked that box in the application form out of a sense of haste because tariffs for applications were due to rise.  The Judge acquitted him on the basis that the man did not stand to gain or benefit from the false declaration, and the outcome of the application would have been the same if he hadn’t made that declaration.

In the case of the flats in Qala, the circumstantial evidence strongly suggests that the project was divided in parts with applications being submitted by different individuals to avoid enhanced planning scrutiny. In their legal proceedings, the Qala Local Council and Din L-Art Ħelwa additionally drew attention to incomplete filings by the applicants, which they say are not in conformity with policies.

“This is an attempt,” the application goes, “to divert attention from the fact that this is a classic case of ‘salami-slicing’ or project fragmentation where one significant project is being sliced into smaller parts to escape evaluation.”

In this case, The Chamber of Architects, a regulatory body, had launched an investigation into the architect who prepared the applications for misleading the Planning Authority.

“The fact that the investigation by Assistant Commissioner Abdilla resulted in the police saying that no evidence of criminal wrongdoing was found despite the evidence being plain to see is another unfair blow to the Malta Police Force itself,” Alden told The Shift.

Meanwhile, the construction of two blocks within the larger planned development in Qala is proceeding.

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