Veteran lawyer John Vassallo who was appointed Chair of the Lands Authority last month by Economy Minister Silvio Schembri, is expected to face a parliamentary grilling this afternoon after he was given the job in breach of procedures.
Last week, The Shift reported how Schembri had bypassed parliamentary procedure when he appointed Vassallo without first getting parliament’s authorisation. Vassallo was a Labour Party candidate in the 80s.
A day after The Shift published its report, Minister Schembri formally wrote to the Chairman of the Public Appointments Committee, Labour MP Anthony Agius Decelis, asking him to convene the committee to approve the appointment.
The session is scheduled for this afternoon when MPs on the committee are expected to quiz Vassallo and decide on his suitability for the post. This is a mere formality as the government enjoys a majority on this committee.
Minister Schembri is expected to be reprimanded for ignoring parliament when appointing Vassallo.
According to an amendment in the Public Administration Law introduced in 2018, the chairperson of the Lands Authority and other government entities cannot be appointed without first getting the approval of the parliamentary committee.
Since Vassallo’s appointment breached procedure, the decisions he took in the time when he occupied the role prior to parliamentary approval could be challenged in court.
Vassallo, 64, will be replacing former Judge Lino Farrugia Sacco at the helm of the Authority.
Formerly known as the Lands Department, the Authority was set up in 2017 following scandals and claims of corruption in the transfer of public land and property.
The department was at the centre of one of the first scandals to hit the Labour administration in 2015 with a multi-million deal involving Café Premier, in which former prime minister Joseph Muscat himself was involved.
The government had negotiated the deal and dropped court procedures against the occupants who were in breach of the original contract. The National Audit Office was highly critical of the deal.
The second major scandal involving the department happened shortly after involving a property in Old Mint Street in a deal with Mark Gaffarena. The government had accepted to pay €1.6 million in cash and land to Mark Gaffarena for his part ownership of a Valletta palazzo in Old Mint Street bought for a fraction of the price a few weeks earlier.
The scandal led to a NAO investigation which forced the resignation of then parliamentary secretary Michael Falzon.