In Robert Louis Stevenson’s ‘Treasure Island’, pirate captain Billy Bones was handed the Black Spot. “It is a judgement, an evil summons to my death,” Bones shrieked. Overwhelmed with terror he suffered a fatal stroke.
The Black Spot was the entire logic by which pirates organised their lives. Living outside society, they escaped laws and restrictions governing civilised life. But the Black Spot provided some order to their realm of lawlessness.
The Black Spot portended disorder and destruction, not only for the captain who was dethroned but for the rest of the pirates.
James Piscopo, Lands Authority CEO, was handed the Black Spot by Keith Schembri. The ex-chief of staff released details about Piscopo’s secret €600,000 in the Jersey Fairbairn Private Bank. Schembri handed Yorgen Fenech a note handwritten by Piscopo detailing the movement of funds in the Jersey account. Fenech’s task was to use his contacts in the media to reveal all.
Schembri used Fenech’s close links to Pierre Portelli, PN’s Medialink Head, to spur Net journalists to ask questions about Piscopo’s pay. Reports about Piscopo’s criminal investigation for bribery and corruption soon surfaced.
Piscopo denied the allegations. Minister Silvio Schembri leapt to his defence. Piscopo would not be suspended, Schembri decided. But just days later, Lands Authority announced that a call for a new CEO would be issued. Piscopo’s reign at Lands was over. Schembri’s spiteful plan worked.
Piscopo’s downfall had been as precipitous as his rise was swift.
James Piscopo was a purchasing clerk at Air Malta when Joseph Muscat chose him. In 2009, Muscat wrote to Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi requesting that Piscopo be seconded from Air Malta to work as Alfred Sant’s administrative assistant. On 5 August 2009, Gonzi acceded to the request for special leave, but unpaid, as long as Piscopo served as Sant’s assistant.
Having obtained Piscopo’s release, Muscat deceitfully appointed Piscopo Labour Party CEO two weeks later.
On Labour’s 2013 victory, Piscopo became CEO and chairman of Transport Malta. The two posts were rolled into one, for Piscopo’s benefit. As executive chairman, the former Air Malta clerk was suddenly earning €85,000. Minister Joe Mizzi declared: “On the advice of the prime minister, I agree that Piscopo will be good for the job”.
At Transport Malta, Piscopo oversaw two massive projects: the Kappara Junction and Coast Road projects.
The Kappara project cost €35 million. It was awarded to SJ Kappara KV consortium. One of the partners in the consortium was Labour’s favourite furniture company – Construct Furniture. How a furniture company could build a road defies logic.
Its shareholders also owned Bava Holdings Ltd. The two companies were awarded €526,000 in direct orders for the shooting range, €180,484 for work at Brussels’ Dar Malta, tens of thousands for infrastructural works at the OPM and thousands more for containers that housed temporary classrooms, apart from the Kappara project.
The Coast Road project was scandalous. Joe Mizzi claimed the project cost €49 million, in answer to PQ7582. It actually cost over €53 million. Despite warnings that EU funds would be lost if rules were not adhered to, Transport Malta went ahead anyway. Their excuse was that if the tendering process had to be re-started more money would be lost. Besides, it would cause delay and funds would be lost anyway. So Piscopo ploughed on, trampling all the rules.
The EU Court of Auditors flagged serious irregularities. Transport Malta negotiated directly with one company a contract whose value exceeded EU-set thresholds and without a proper call for bids. It described Piscopo’s project as “an example of serious failure in procurement rules”.
In the meantime, Piscopo was busy developing his three-storey “bungalow” complete with a swimming pool, six stores, archives and a cellar at a prime site in L-Iklin. By 24 November 2015, barely two years after his sudden turn of fortune, Piscopo moved into his lucrative property.
He also acquired a 14% stake in BBF Ltd through his company Undecim Five investments Ltd, mentioned in the ICIJ offshore leaks. The owners of Fortina Hotel were shareholders in BBF. The company acquired Etvan hotel in Marsascala and swiftly obtained planning permission to convert it into an old people’s home – a venture costing millions. Piscopo’s Undecim Five was run from A3 Towers, co-incidentally Transport Malta’s licensing unit base.
Piscopo also held shares in Floors of Stone Co Ltd, dealing in importation and distribution of floor materials.
In 2018, Piscopo became Lands Authority CEO. Lands negotiated a deal with Fortina Hotel, whose owners were Piscopo’s business partners. The Planning Authority gave Fortina a permit to build a 15 storey office block and to extend the hotel to 23 floors.
The permit was issued even though Fortina shareholders had not been released from their contractual obligation to use the Tigne’ land only for hotel purposes. Changing the clause pushed the market value of their land by millions of euro. Fortina had already agreed to sell the office block to Bet365 for over €60 million before permits were even issued.
Even if Keith Schembri hadn’t spilt the beans, it was evident that an Air Malta purchasing clerk could not have acquired such huge wealth in such a short time. At least not unless he had come across a pirate’s chest. His Iklin property and his business interests are worth millions. His wealth requires some explaining. How could it have escaped the FIAU and Economic Crimes Unit?
Keith Schembri’s actions forced Piscopo to step down from Lands CEO. But Piscopo remains ARMS Ltd chairman and Enemalta director. How can somebody being investigated for bribery and corruption be allowed to continue to occupy such posts?
When Toni Abela’s embarrassing nomination to the Court of Auditors was swiftly rejected, Piscopo wrote: “Those who worked against Malta should be named and shamed. There should be no benefit of anonymity”.
Schembri heeded his advice. Treasure is slipping through pirates’ fingers.