Flanked by naked cardboard figures at Marigold Foundation’s Pink October launch this month, chairperson Michelle Muscat took a central role in urging the Maltese to check their privates.
And just as she takes centre stage at all of its publicity campaigns, documents seen by The Shift show that, behind the scenes, she has now taken control of the Marigold Foundation, which was originally set up by Bank of Valletta (BOV).
Last year, Michelle Muscat was effectively handed control over the Foundation through an amendment to the deed setting up BOV’s foundation worth €700,000 in net assets, according to the organisation’s accounts. The government (using taxpayer funds) has become the single largest donor to the foundation.
Michelle Muscat took control for the token sum of €100.
As co-founder, Michelle Muscat has the same rights over the Foundation as BOV (which invested heavily in the foundation) including the right to nominate and appoint half the board of administrators of the foundation.
In 2019, she appointed Mark Farrugia as one of her representatives to the Foundation’s board. Farrugia was her husband’s personal assistant and the right hand man of former chief of staff Keith Schembri, arrested last Monday on accusations of money laundering.
The amendments to Marigold’s founding deed also results in a situation where, as sitting chairperson, she must agree to her own removal.
Effectively, Michelle Muscat has entrenched herself.
The amendments were approved and adopted by the BOV-appointed board of administrators, according to Marigold’s accounts.
BOV in the community
The Marigold Foundation was originally established in February 2014 as ‘The Marigold Foundation – BOV in the Community’.
The stated purpose for BOV setting up Marigold was to formalise BOV’s charitable and corporate social responsibility activities and efforts under one banner.
As founder of Marigold, BOV was entitled to nominate and appoint a board of five (later six) as well as a chairperson. The first administrators appointed were Elvia George (BOV’s CFO), Ivan Grech (of Wintermoods fame and Norman Hamilton’s brother-in-law), John Magro (Magro Brothers), Fr. Hilary Tagliaferro (Millenium Chapel) and Robert Xuereb (cardiologist).
In addition to the Board and Michelle Muscat as chairperson, BOV had also appointed an executive secretary, Jennifer Xuereb (a BOV manager and, since 2017, also a government appointee on the board of the Housing Authority).
Marigold’s first auditors were the now shuttered Nexia BT. In 2015, Nexia BT was replaced by KPMG.
As this was BOV’s charity, the bank endowed Marigold Foundation with €200,000 as initial capital and has consistently donated €100,000 per year between 2016 and 2019, according to its accounts.
A review of the finances of the Foundation, as well as direct orders and donations by government departments, shows that over the years the government has become the single largest donor to the Foundation.
The Foundation’s most recent audited accounts (2018) show net assets in excess of €700,000.
‘The Michelle Muscat Foundation’
From the start, it became clear to many that Michelle Muscat’s ambitions for self-promotion were perhaps greater than her actual role as chairperson of BOV’s charity.
A review of the events held by Marigold over the years show an increasing focus on Michelle Muscat, now perpetually surrounded by her aides and friends.
Between 2014 and 2016, over half the fundraising events organised by the Marigold Foundation consisted of events, primarily fashion-show oriented, held at the Prime Minister’s residences in Villa Francia and Girgenti as well as Castille itself.
In 2015, around the time Michelle announced that she had taken up swimming, the Marigold Foundation also started organising a “personal swimming challenge for the chairperson”, featuring ever more fictitious long distance swims. After she was exposed, she took to floating in the last event.
This increasing focus on Michelle Muscat is also reflected in Marigold Foundation’s accounts. By 2016, the standard and usually dry administrators’ report was relegated behind an increasingly lengthy “chairperson’s report” signed by Michelle Muscat.
Typically exceeding six pages, these reports in the first person gushingly described her “personal challenges” and “personal joys”, including her glee at receiving ever more ‘personal awards’ for her “hard work”.
While originally decisions and requests for financial assistance to charities were considered by the entire Board, the Foundation’s accounts show that by mid-2015 an adjudicating board or committee was set up, effectively bypassing the main Board for decisions on which causes to support.
Its composition over the years is not disclosed in the accounts but Michelle Muscat’s influence and ‘soft’ control over the adjudicating committee and Foundation itself became clearer over the years.
And she apparently used her influence to seek funding through her husband’s connections. Yorgen Fenech, the suspected mastermind of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia’s assassination, was among those called upon to support a foundation “by the prime minister’s wife”.
Matters quickly came to a head in 2016 when Michelle Muscat, and with her the Marigold Foundation which added its endorsement, became embroiled in the Corradino prison cheap labour scandal involving Michelle’s designer friend, Mary Grace Pisani and her Cessani fashion brand.
Pisani’s ‘Love, Faith, Forgiveness’ project which involved engaging underpaid prisoners to sew curtains and garments for sale, including to the government for the CHOGM 2015 event, was misleadingly pitched by Michelle Muscat as “an NGO”. Worse, it had transpired that many of the prisoners had simply not been paid by Cessani or Marigold with arrears totalling over €16,000 in wages.
The Foundation had at the time distanced itself, saying it had nothing to do with the administration of payments and denying the claim that Michelle Muscat had pitched the project to the Foundation as an NGO. The prisoners were subsequently paid their arrears.
Amid the fallout, board member Dr Xuereb had acknowledged that the popular perception was that Marigold Foundation was “the Michelle Muscat Foundation”, though he had stressed that this was just a perception.
With these latest 2019 amendments effectively ceding control over to Michelle Muscat, the Marigold Foundation has truly become the Michelle Muscat Foundation.