Updated to include comments from Matthew Xuereb.
Matthew Xuereb, a lawyer who used to work at the office of the Attorney General has jumped ship and joined Mark Gaffarena’s defence team.
Xuereb, who is the nephew of former AG Peter Grech, is now defending Gaffarena in a lawsuit filed and defended by his former office. The move has raised questions as Xuereb could have been made privy to documentation and relevant information on the same case.
This exact issue also emerged when lawyer Charles Mercieca left the office of the Attorney General to join the defence team of businessman Yorgen Fenech, overnight. The latter is accused of commissioning the murder of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia.
Matthew Xuereb appeared for Gaffarena in court proceedings on Thursday. He joined lawyers Keith Bonnici and Mario Mifsud who appeared before the court of appeal presided by Judges Giannino Caruana Demajo, Tonio Mallia and Anthony Ellul.
The court proceedings relate to the appeal filed by Gaffarena on the revocation of a controversial expropriation deal on a property in Old Mint Street, Valletta. Gaffarena filed the appeal arguing that it was an exercise to gain political points.
The Maltese courts had rescinded the government land handed to Gaffarena after former Prime Minister Joseph Muscat filed a court case against him and his wife Josielle to recoup the palazzo in Valletta.
In a 2018 decision, the courts revoked all transfers made in terms of expropriation contracts and ordered the return of all assets to the government.
An investigation for The Times of Malta had revealed that Gaffarena made a profit of €685,000 in less than two months, and acquired land in exchange equivalent to the size of 10 football pitches. While the launch of the case was criticised as a public relations exercise by a prime minister seemingly distancing himself from government decisions, an NAO report investigating the deal had confirmed “collusion”.
Appearing before the court of appeals, Gaffarena’s defence team questioned whether Muscat was still an interested party in the case given that he is no longer a member of parliament. Muscat resigned from parliament in October 2020.
In the case the disgraced former prime minister launched, Muscat is being defended by the AG and the State Advocate despite the fact that he is no longer part of the governing administration.
Michael Falzon, who at the time was parliamentary secretary for Lands, was forced to resign over the deal. He was reappointed to Cabinet later, while he received government contracts in between.
Falzon, who was reappointed to Cabinet after the 2017 general election, was quizzed by the board of inquiry looking into the murder of Caruana Galizia about this deal. The Minister said he felt he had shouldered responsibility for the matter.
In 2015, the government paid €1.65 million for part ownership of the Valletta property that Gaffarena had bought for a fraction of the price just weeks earlier. The investigation had also stopped the transfer of millions more and protected the families owning the property from further exploitation.
The court was also asked to issue a warrant of seizure equivalent to the funds already paid to Gaffarena and a warrant to stop the transfer of properties handed to them by the government.
This recent shift by lawyer Matthew Xuereb from the office of the AG to Gaffarena’s defence team is the latest in a years-long saga.
But it is not something we never heard of before.
Last year, the legal community was shocked to learn that young lawyer Charles Mercieca suddenly decided to shift from the AG to Yorgen Fenech’s team. Merieca, son of former parliamentary secretary Franco Mercieca and who was seemingly unknown, jumped on to Fenech’s defence team less than 24 hours after he walked out of the AG’s office.
The Daphne Caruana Galizia foundation had issued a statement saying it believes this shift points to prior collusion.
The sudden move led to harsh criticism from Special Rapporteur Pieter Omtzigt who called for an immediate investigation by the Maltese authorities before ‘irreversible harm’ could be done.
In comments sent to The Shift, Xuereb said he terminated his employment contract at the AG’s office in August 2020, almost six months ago.
“I would like to point out that I have never worked in the civil law division within the AG’s office. I am a libero professionista’ with my independent office and I exercise the profession as self-employed,” he said.
“I can affirm that I had no access to any case materials nor to any discussion with lawyers within the separate civil law office, which by now has been developed into a separate state attorney’s office. There is no possibility that I had acquired any form of information about the same case.”
Xuereb said he joined the case at the appeal stage and has no further ties with the client.