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Direct orders to Party loyalists for cultural events total €3m in 6 months

Direct orders continue despite stern warning from National Audit Office.

Disgraced former Prime Minister Joseph Muscat with failed MEP Labour candidate Felix Busuttil who has been benefitting from public funds through direct orders.

State cultural agencies in Malta, under the political patronage of former Justice and Culture Minister Owen Bonnici, paid over €3 million to politically connected personalities and Labour party loyalists, according to the Government Gazette.

Research conducted by The Shift places the Arts Council as the largest spender of taxpayers’ funds on direct orders for cultural events.

Led by 73-year-old Executive Chairman Albert Marshall, a Labour Party veteran who was also CEO of the Party’s TV station One, the Council authorised nearly €600,000 in direct orders in the last six months of 2019, even as the country was in an upheaval over corruption and criminal allegations against the government led by disgraced former Prime Minister Joseph Muscat.

Albert Marshall was awarded the Order of Merit.

The Arts Council had already spent more than €1.2 million in the previous six months, despite stern warnings by the National Audit Office that it was abusing procurement rules.

Among the new beneficiaries of Marshall’s direct orders were Frederick Testa, a veteran actor who became the subject of media attention, not for his performances, but for appearing at Labour Party conferences before 2013, pitching the need for a change of government ‘to end corruption and nepotism’.

Soon after Labour’s return to power, Testa was rewarded with a job at the State broadcaster. After retiring, Marshall recruited him as a ‘cultural liaison officer’ for the Arts Council which, according to the latest data, is costing taxpayers another €30,000 per year.

Taxpayers were also generous with failed MEP Labour candidate and dancer Felix Busuttil who was listed as a recipient of public funds in the Government Gazette. Apart from sitting on the Board of a new State agency called Zfin Malta – a satellite organisation of the Arts Council – Busuttil was awarded a €25,000 contract to act as a ‘coordinator’ for the Council and an additional €10,000 for a five-month term as a coordinator at Teatru Manoel.

Felix Busuttil addressing a mass meeting for the governing Labour Party in the lead up to the general elections in 2017.

Nocemuscata – a small marketing agency founded by Sarah Lee Zammit – a former employee and collaborator with Marshall at the Arts Council, has also become the recipient of numerous handouts by taxpayers.

An executive at the Arts Council until a few months ago, Zammit ‘won’ a €52,000 tender by her former employer to provide marketing services, and was also issued a direct order by Heritage Malta for over €25,000 for the development of a communications strategy.

Sarah Lee Zammit (second from right) with Jason Micallef and Deo Debattista joined by Ikona Artworks, commissioned to create the artworks placed around Valletta during V18 that were the subject of national ridicule.

Along with Sharpshoot Media – a TV production company owned by Justin Farrugia, brother of Malta Enterprise CEO and former chief government spokesman Kurt Farrugia, Zammit also produces a TVM cultural programme paid for with public funds. Once again, the Arts Council collaborates in this project.

Justin Farrugia with his brother Kurt Farrugia, former Head of Government Communications under Joseph Muscat appointed CEO of Malta Enterprise.

Among other direct orders listed in the Government Gazette are those related to the re-engagement of Willie Mangion, a singer, who also appeared in Labour Party campaign adverts before the election, and Charles Marsh – a DJ on Labour’s radio station who was assigned the role of ‘logistics coordinator’ at Festivals Malta, another Arts Council satellite organisation.

According to the latest information, the Valletta Cultural Agency, led by One TV chairman Jason Micallef, issued almost €300,000 in direct orders in the final six months of 2019.

These do not include a tender awarded to Jean Pierre Magro for €137,000 for consulting services on strategy and communications.

Magro, a close collaborator to the Labour government, hit the headlines last year when a private company he was involved in signed an unprecedented agreement with the Arts Council to form a joint venture and produce a commercial film on Sette Giugno.

The Arts Council ‘invested’ at least €500,000 of taxpayers’ funds in this commercial business venture, without a prior public call.

Along with Magro, the Board of Directors of the joint venture includes Marshall and Labour propaganda audio-visual producer Mario Azzopardi.

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