James Piscopo, the former CEO of the Labour Party, Transport Malta and most recently the Lands Authority, is offering advisory services to the Zammit Tabonas after he was forced to leave his full time public role due to a scandal.
Sources close to the Fortina Group, which owns Captain Morgan and holds the exclusive public concession for the grand harbour ferry transport service, told The Shift that Piscopo was engaged as an advisor almost immediately after leaving his Lands Authority post.
Asked to confirm, Fortina CEO Edward Zammit Tabona told The Shift that Piscopo is not an employee of the company. However, he indicated that the company may be using Piscopo’s advice.
“Mr James Piscopo is not an employee of any of our business organisations. He has no position within the group,” the Fortina CEO said.
“We understand Mr Piscopo offers advisory services. It is a matter of private business whether we use his services if and when required,” Zammit Tabona insisted.
Piscopo was appointed chairman and chief executive of Transport Malta in 2013 when the Labour Party was swept to power. He was part of the inner circle at Castille under Joseph Muscat, regularly seen among his core group of advisors.
At the time, Transport Malta was not only responsible for regulating transport but also handled multi-million-euro infrastructure projects on the upgrading of Malta’s road network.
Infrastructure Malta was then set up and Piscopo was moved to the Lands Authority, another important agency controlling public land and property.
Last January, soon after media reports revealed that the police were investigating claims, allegedly made by Keith Schembri, that Piscopo was taking kickbacks from road building projects, he suddenly resigned from the Lands Authority saying it was time to move to new pastures.
No charges were ever brought against Piscopo for any wrongdoing. The former Labour CEO denies the allegations.
Meanwhile, Piscopo is still serving in other public roles, including as chairman of Arms Ltd and a board member of Enemalta and Projects Malta, which has recently changed its name to Malta Strategic Partnership Projects Ltd.
A friend and a business partner
In 2018, when Piscopo was already CEO of the Lands Authority, media reports revealed that since 2016 Piscopo was in private business with a number of influential groups, including the Zammit Tabonas.
While Piscopo had ‘forgotten’ his obligation to declare his business interests to the Lands Authority governors, the government-appointed chairman at the time, Judge Lino Farrugia Sacco, had accepted his explanation. Piscopo had also declared that he was relinquishing his business interests to avoid any real or perceived conflicts of interests.
While chairman of Transport Malta, Piscopo registered Undecim Five Investments Ltd, declaring sole ownership.
Through this company, Piscopo invested in two other companies, BBF Ltd – the owner of an old people’s home – and Floors of Stone Ltd – importers and suppliers of flooring materials.
The Zammit Tabonas also held a shareholding interest in these two companies with Piscopo and others.
Since 2013, the Zammit Tabonas have been involved in a number of transactions with both Transport Malta and the Lands Authority, when Piscopo was at the helm.
The first involved the introduction of a fast ferry service between Malta and Gozo – a Labour Party pledge in 2013. The Zammit Tabonas submitted a bid when the public call was made when Piscopo was at the helm.
The tender was cancelled twice: First, after Virtu Ferries placed first in a related tender issued by Gozo Channel, and then after an agreement between the State ferry company and the Zammit Tabonas was cancelled following a court ruling that the process was vitiated.
In 2016, following a tender issued by Transport Malta, a company called Marina di Valletta was selected and given a 25-year concession to build and manage a lucrative yacht marina at Sa Maison.
One of the shareholders of the winning consortium was the Arrigo Group of Hotels Ltd – owned by Veronica and Julian Zammit Tabona, the parents Edward Zammit Tabona and co-owners of Fortina Group.
Julian Zammit Tabona was on the board of directors of Marina di Valletta and at a time when he was also a shareholder in business ventures with James Piscopo.
In 2017, Marsamxetto Steam Ferries Ltd – a joint venture between the Zammit Tabonas and the Bianchi Group – wrote to James Piscopo as chairman of Transport Malta complaining that a concession they had won by tender in 2012 was not giving them the financial results expected and asked for an extension of the concession beyond the 2020 time-limit agreed. They argued that TM did not honour its obligations and expected compensation.
Although the concession should have been opened for competition through a new tender last year, Transport Malta agreed to a three-year extension. At the time, James Piscopo had already left Transport Malta. This decision is now being contested before the Public Contracts Review Board by Supreme Travel – a potential competitor.
In 2019, when Piscopo was heading the Lands Authority, the Zammit Tabonas, as owners of the Tigne seafront Fortina Hotel asked for a waiver so that former public land sold to them by the government exclusively for tourism purposes could be turned into a massive block of residential apartments, offices and shops.
The deal was settled at €8.1 million, and the government also accepted very favourable payment terms and conditions for the Zammit Tabonas who paid only €1 million when the deal was signed. The rest – €7 million – were to be paid over a 10-year period from the signing of the deed.
At the time, James Piscopo had said that he kept a distance from the Authority’s negotiations with the Zammit Tabonas.
Before the crucial agreement with the Lands Authority was even reached, the Zammit Tabonas had reportedly already signed a €60 million promise of sale with gaming giant Bet365 for an office block.
Loft, an interior design company owned by Josette Schembri Vella, wife of then OPM Chief of Staff Keith Schembri, was reportedly awarded a multi-million-euro contract for the interior design of the new office block.