A plan by a medieval foundation to extract money from residents in return for relinquishing its questionable registration of land ownership has encountered a setback.
The land registrar has rejected the foundation’s attempts to de-register property belonging to relatives of Gozitan construction magnate Joseph Portelli, Lovin Malta and The Shift can reveal in an ongoing joint investigation.
After the rejection of the deregistration via three contracts, sources told the joint investigation that in recent days the foundation has made a fresh pitch, this time in the form of applications.
It remains to be seen whether the applications would now be accepted, but this creates an obstacle to the medieval foundation’s attempts to extract a payment from dozens of residents whose houses sit on two large lands amounting to around four football grounds in central Nadur.
The former assistant land registrar last year caused outrage after approving the foundation’s Nadur applications within a week despite the fact that the original deed did not even mention the Nadur lands at all.
The foundation, called Beneficcju ta Sant Antonio delli Navarra, has since 2017 been controlled by six Stagno Navarra siblings, retired magistrate Dennis Montebello and lawyer Carmelo Galea.
Lovin Malta and The Shift have reported extensively on the land grab affecting large swathes of eastern Gozo.
Galea had said in the first story of the series that the residents had a choice to pay up in “amicable settlements” or end up in court.
The three plots the foundation attempted to deregister belong to Portelli’s aunt and cousin, his sister and a couple who had bought their house from Portelli 12 years ago.
In the three similar contracts signed on the same day and prepared by the same notary, Vicyana Apap, the foundation accepted these residents’ ownership through “acquisitive prescription” – which confers title on property held via a legal, public and unchallenged contract over an unequivocal stretch of more than 10 years – while the residents, in turn, accepted that their “property formed part of the patrimonial land of the benefice”.
According to the contract, the residents then paid a sum of money – €10,000 on the part of Portelli’s aunt and cousin, and €70,000 by his sister’s family – in return for the foundation’s relinquishment of its historical claim.
The third contract was with Stephen and Doreen Muscat, who had bought their house in 2009 from Portelli, who had held the property (according to Doreen) under a preliminary agreement. Carmelo Galea had also been involved: he had gotten a development permit to redevelop the property into “two houses with pools” five months before the transaction.
The Muscats’ had been featured in the first article in the Gozo Grab series in the joint investigation of Lovin Malta and The Shift. Doreen Muscat had told the joint investigation that she and her husband had refused to pay any sum demanded – initially €50,000, then reduced to €20,000 – in a meeting in Galea’s office. She said that afterwards she told Portelli she held him responsible, and he had told her he would pay any “expenses” to the foundation.
She added she had not heard back from Portelli or anyone else. The contract that has now been obtained by the joint investigation shows that she had in fact already signed the deal a month earlier.
Contacted yesterday on the phone, she denied she had signed any contract and kept saying she had clients and could not talk. Asked whether she had paid the €10,000, she insisted that she has not “paid one penny” and claimed that Portelli paid it.
Portelli’s aunt and cousin, who had also signed a deal, received PN leader Bernard Grech last February when he visited affected residents. Grech posted a picture in their kitchen on his Facebook page and vowed that a PN government would investigate and revoke the registrations.
Yet the two of them had signed the deal with the foundation two months before Grech’s visit.
Contacted yesterday and asked whether he had put up a pretence of victimhood during Grech’s visit considering he had already signed a deal, Portelli’s cousin, Peter Paul, first said it was a private matter and – after it was explained that the Nadur registrations are of public interest and he had received the leader of the opposition at home in a public exercise – he hung up the phone.
No prejudice to other residents
One of the clauses in the signed contracts specifies that the foundation would deregister the plot in question within two weeks. This deadline has now gone awry for all contracts – this includes a fourth contract signed more recently with a couple who had bought their property in 2019.
In the latter case – the contract was signed on 12 March 2021 – sources said that the monetary contribution of €10,000 was probably paid by the previous owners.
Legal experts told the joint investigation that slippage of the deadline does not render the contracts invalid.
They also clarified that, as specified in the contracts themselves, the foundation’s acceptance of the residents’ ownership through acquisitive prescription is not prejudicial to other residents. No litigant could gain advantage or bear disadvantage because of these contracts in court.
Discrepancies and Portelli’s links
Two of the contracts show a discrepancy between size of property and size of monetary figure. Only one house separates the two properties, one of which belongs to the Muscats and the other to Portelli’s sister Lauren Galea and her husband Kevin Galea.
The Muscats’ property amounts to 389 square metres, the Galeas’ amounts to 217 square metres, yet according to the contract the Muscats’ paid €10,000 while the Galeas’ forked out €70,000.
It is not known what accounts for such differences.
Yet it is striking given Portelli’s large business dealings with the people behind the foundation on a large piece of land in Qala called Ta Ghar Boffa.
Excel Investments Limited, of which Portelli is a majority shareholder, bought the Qala land from Carravan Company Limited, which acquired the land on emphyteusis from the foundation. Carravan is owned by the Stagno Navarra siblings, Galea, as well as a company of Montebello and his two daughters, including active magistrate Rachel Montebello.
Rachel is the partner of Patrick Valentino, appointed rector of the foundation in 2017 by the archbishop. After appointing Valentino rector, the archbishop then renounced his veto over emphyteutical land transfers. Valentino then transferred Ta Ghar Boffa to Carravan.
Excel has now already built around 100 flats and have a permit – which is being contested by an alliance spearheaded by Moviment Graffitti – for 64 more.
In a public meeting in Nadur last year, Portelli defended himself against public chatter of his involvement with the foundation by stating that his only relationship was to buy land from Carravan for €7 million. At the time Excel held Ta Ghar Boffa under a preliminary agreement. The actual sale was signed a few weeks ago on 1 May.
This is part of an investigative series being published jointly by The Shift and Lovin Malta about an ongoing land dispute in Gozo. The investigative team had strategic and research input by Caroline Muscat and Chris Peregin.