In the midst of a ban on events and popular social gatherings due to the ongoing pandemic, the Ministry for National Heritage and the Arts, headed by Valletta MP Jose’ Herrera, still spent more than €3 million in 240 direct orders during the last six months of last year.
An analysis by The Shift, following the publication of the most recent list of direct orders in the Government Gazette, shows that in many cases, Labour Party activists and companies usually associated with the provision of services to the governing party were granted tens of thousands of euros in taxpayers’ funds for services procured by various government agencies without any form of competition.
Previous warnings by the National Audit Office against the indiscriminate use of direct orders, which go against public procurement rules, were completely ignored by various state agencies falling under Minister Herrera’s remit.
The Valletta Cultural Agency, chaired by One TV boss, Jason Micallef, was one of greatest transgressors, dishing out 32 direct orders in six months for a total value of almost half a million euros.
Despite the airport being closed during the usually bustling tourism season, Micallef was still able to find reasons to put lucrative direct orders in the way of certain companies.
The Fortina Group Zammit Tabona family was awarded two direct orders for €20,000 to keep their Captain Morgan and Marsamxetto Steamferry Services financially afloat through the pandemic, via payments from public coffers to provide ‘free’ ferry services during July and August. The companies provide ferry crossings between Sliema, Valletta and Cottonera.
Jason Busuttil, a former cameraman at One TV and a close friend of Micallef’s, was paid €8,000 for ‘coordination services’ during a fireworks show, while €52,000 were spent at Nexos – suppliers at Labour’s mass events – on lighting equipment services for the ‘Valletta pageant of the seas’, directed by Labour’s famous ‘Malta Taghna lkoll’ video producer, Mario Azzopardi.
Tec Malta, providers of stages for Labour Party mass meetings, were paid €10,000 for the hiring of a tent used for Christmas activities. As well, through another company, AXT FX Malta – in which former ONE TV cameramen Jason Busuttil and Sandro Kitcher are shareholders – they were paid an additional €7,000 for coordinating an audience-free fireworks display on New Year’s Eve.
Kitcher, from Valletta, and a canvasser of Minister Herrera, received another separate direct order of €8,000 as ‘technical consultant’ at Festivals Malta.
The latter agency, chaired by Norman Hamilton, a Labour TV host and travel agent, whom disgraced former Prime Minister Joseph Muscat had appointed as Malta’s High Commissioner to the UK for five years, spent a total of €541,000 on 60 different direct orders between July and December 2020.
Tens of thousands were spent on a new festival – dubbed Muzika, Muzika – a more sophisticated version of the Maltese song festival which Hamilton used to organize, when Labour was in opposition, to compete with the then local Eurovision festival.
For this festival, Hamilton issued a €10,000 direct order to his old acquaintance Paul Abela as artistic director and another €10,000 to David Borg – a former parliamentary assistant to disgraced former Prime Minister Joseph Muscat – to also act as an artistic director.
€75,000 was paid to hire the song festival’s venue – the Malta Fairs and Convention Centre in Ta’ Qali – while One TV was paid €7,500 for a ‘tv campaign for the festival’.
Daniel Abela – the owner of PR firm Redorange and nephew of former Labour Deputy Prime Minister Louis Grech – was handed €8,515 to promote the festival on public busses through his company Moving Ads Limited, while former TV host and DJ Gianni Zammit was paid €6,000 as ‘brand ambassador’ for Muzika Muzika.
During the last six months of 2020, Hamilton’s public agency also gave direct orders to Mark Grima, son of former Labour Minister Joe Grima, to act as a member of an adjudication board; €7,000 to Elton Zarb, a music composer and son of former GWU secretary general Tony Zarb; €8,000 to former dancer turned Labour MEP candidate Felix Busuttil who was taken on as a ‘communications assistant’; €6,000 to Charles Marsh, a former DJ on One Radio for ‘logistics services’ and almost €9,000 to singer William Mangion to act as ‘cultural coordinator’.
The Arts Council, chaired by the 74-year-old, former One TV CEO, Albert Marshall, issued a staggering €126,000 direct order to Ray Calleja, a former One TV comedian, for his services as ‘cultural project manager’, while Frederick Testa, an actor who publicly endorsed Labour in 2013, was gifted a €30,000 direct order as ‘liaison artistic officer’.
Marshall’s Arts Council used the direct order system to ‘employ’ a raft of personnel without going through the proper government recruitment channels, from drivers to clerks, receptionists, and all forms of coordinators,
In total, the Arts Council issued 40 direct orders worth €765,000 in six months.