Parliament’s public appointments committee has unanimously approved the appointment of veteran lawyer John Vassallo as Chairman of the Lands Authority, more than a month after Economy Minister Silvio Schembri published his appointment in the Government Gazette.
Vassallo, 64, a former Labour Party candidate in the 80s, was given the green light by both government and opposition MPs in a brief session on Tuesday. When voting in favour, Opposition MPs said they were giving their consent on condition that Vassallo increases transparency at the Authority and introduces important reforms.
Vassallo held the role of deputy chairperson for the past four years. He told MPs about his concerns that the Gaffarena scandal, which had led to the creation of the Authority, is still in the minds of many Land Authority officials, “who are scared to do their job until this day”.
Uncovered in 2015, just two years after the Labour Party was swept to power, the scandal involved a secret deal 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 only a few weeks earlier.
An NAO investigation had shown collusion between Lands officials and private interests. The scandal had forced the resignation of then Parliamentary Secretary Michael Falzon, although he was later made Minister.
During the parliamentary session, Vassallo also spoke about personality clashes within the Authority that had led to difficult situations over the last four years. Clashes between the former Lands Authority chief James Piscopo and the former chairman have been widely reported.
Piscopo resigned a few weeks ago, soon after media reports showed he was being investigated for claiming kickbacks from public road projects when he was Chairman of the Transport Authority. These allegations were made in chats found on Yorgen Fenech’s mobile phone and published by The Times of Malta. According to the report, the information was being passed on to Fenech by Keith Schembri, currently in prison over money laundering charges.
Piscopo denies the claims.