The internal probe by Allied Newspapers into money laundering allegations involving Adrian Hillman did not look into the property deals worth millions negotiated and signed off by its former managing director.
Allied Newspapers sold its iconic building in St Paul’s Street to move to premises in Mrieħel, but this was the last of a number of properties sold in deals mostly made while Hillman was leading the company.
In particular, a multi-million euro deal made to sell Canberra House in 2015, which raised a number of questions from the start, was never scrutinised.
Located opposite the former premises hosting The Times of Malta’s offices, Canberra House was sold to Pierre Sladden, a contractor who held a secret Cypriot company together with Hillman and the former prime minister’s chief of staff Keith Schembri.
A spokesman for Allied Newspapers would not confirm whether the deal was investigated by the internal ‘graft’ inquiry held in 2016. Instead, the reply received was that all deals were approved by the board of directors.
The Shift has documentary evidence that confirms the property deals were not part of the internal investigation.
What happened to Canberra House?
Investigations carried out by The Shift show that in February 2015, Allied Newspapers, facing financial problems due to the multi-million euro investment in printing machinery – a deal that has landed the company’s top executives in court on money laundering charges and kickbacks – transferred a massive property it owned in St Paul’s Street to Castille Investments Ltd.
The company was registered only a few weeks before the deed was signed. Its majority shareholder is Sladden, the owner of Red Map Contractors Ltd, at the time also working on the conversion project of The Times of Malta’s newly acquired headquarters in Mriehel.
Canberra House, part of the property portfolio left to Allied Newspapers by its founder Mabel Strickland was sold to Castille Investments for just €2.2 million, even though the several adjoined houses with entrances on both St Paul’s Street and Melita Street could be easily converted into a large office space abutting both the Auberge de Castille, the Prime Minister’s Office, and Palazzo Parisio, the seat of the Foreign Affairs Ministry.
Similar office space in Valletta, in less prestigious locations, is fetching more than €4,500 per square metre. Canberra House had a potential of 1,700 square metres of office space – that is over €7 million, compared to the €2 million Sladden’s company paid for the property. In 2015, property prices were at a peak, compared to now.
It seems Sladden understood the bargain, selling off Canberra House only months later for a substantial profit. It is difficult to understand how Allied Newspapers management, and Hillman who signed off on the deal, were unaware that they were giving away the property. It’s either that, or Hillman, and possibly others, knew and benefitted from it, directly or indirectly.
Hillman remains a fugitive in the UK, refusing to come to Malta to face charges despite his claims of innocence. Michel Rizzo, Hillman’s assistant at the time and also a signatory on the deal, who took Hillman’s place when the former managing director resigned after reaching a deal with the company that remains secret, is now also facing criminal charges in court.
Law firm Guido de Marco & Associates assisted Allied Newspapers in the sale.
Allied Newspapers probe ignored property sales
Mabel Strickland’s legacy included a lucrative property portfolio inherited by Allied Newspapers – a move Strickland made to ensure the newspaper would have enough assets to remain independent.
While Hillman was at the helm, this portfolio was mostly sold off. It did nothing to address the “austerity measures” Hillman imposed on the newsroom and its resources while millions appear to have been siphoned off into private pockets.
Yet despite the alarm bells resulting from what was exposed in the Panama Papers on the dealings between Hillman and Schembri, the internal inquiry’s focus was selective. Despite losing its assets, and safeguard, on Hillman’s watch, the inquiry’s remit did not include the Valletta properties sold off.
Allied Newspaper’s spokesman did not reply to questions asking for the name of the architect who made the valuations for the company before their sale. He also refused to say how many properties were sold on Hillman’s watch and to state whether the company issued a public call before selling its properties.
Sladden – Hillman – Schembri connection
Pierre Sladden, a contractor from Xgħajra, was close to Adrian Hillman when he led Allied Newspapers. Seen frequently together, Sladden used to handle all refurbishment and construction-related works at Allied Newspapers’ iconic ‘Strickland House’ in Valletta – now also sold – and the newly acquired property in Mrieħel to house the printing machinery acquired from Keith Schembri’s Kasco Group that brought the company to its knees.
At the time, Sladden was also a business associate with the former prime minister’s chief of staff Keith Schembri.
Together with Schembri’s father, Alfio, who is also facing criminal charges, and Phyllis Muscat, a close friend of disgraced former prime minister Joseph Muscat and who was given a number of top government appointments including Head of CHOGM, Sladden used to own two film production companies named Cinebiss Ltd and Grigal Films Ltd.
The Panama Papers, published after the sale of Canberra House, also revealed that Sladden, Schembri and Hillman owned a Cyprus-based company called A2Z Consulta.
According to the same leaks, in November 2015, just a few months after the sale of Canberra House, Nexia BT, who handled Schembri, Hillman and Sladden’s financial matters, asked Mossack Fonseca’s office in the British Virgin Islands to certify an assignment of debt of $1 million between companies linked to Sladden and A2Z Consulta.
The documents showed that Redmap Construction Ltd owed Cyprus company A2Z Consulta almost $1 million for “the provision of services consisting in quality checks and negotiation with suppliers”. Sladden never explained these services, if they existed.
Court proceedings on money laundering charges faced by those accused in relation to the printing machinery deal show that “consultancy services” were allegedly used to hide kickbacks.
Like Hillman and Schembri, Sladden also owned an offshore British Virgin Islands company, named Blue Sea portfolio, set up for him by Nexia BT.
No charges have ever been brought against Sladden, even though a probe by the tax authorities over possible tax evasion and other criminal activities was held.
The Allied Newspapers’ internal probe, concluded in June 2016, was never published.
Apart from the multi-million euro property deals, the company’s internal probe did not even investigate Vince Buhagiar, the former managing director of Allied Newspapers before Hillman and chairman of Progress Progress when the deal on the printing machinery was sealed.
Like the two other managing directors of Allied Group, Buhagiar is also facing criminal charges related to money laundering and fraud.
The same charges are being faced by Progress Press, accused of defrauding public funds between 2013 and March 13, 2019.
Allied Newspapers sent us a Right of Reply on this article available here.