The government-appointed Chair of the Building and Construction Agency (BCA) is officially representing a company operating an illegal batching plant in Gozo operated by construction magnate Joseph Portelli before the Public Contracts Review Board (PCRB).
Maria Schembri Grima was appointed by Environment Minister Aaron Farrugia to head the Building and Constructions Agency last April, as part of the government’s drive to regularise the industry after Miriam Pace died under the rubble of her own home in a building collapse last year.
Portelli is one of her main clients, The Shift has shown, questioning the choice. Now, she is representing her client, for company Prax Concrete Ltd which is contesting a tender before the PCRB over a complaint filed.
Prax Concrete Ltd operates an illegal batching plant on public land in Gozo. Several media reports have drawn attention to the matter but the plant continues to operate with no consequences. It even has the audacity to challenge a tender it deems it should have acquired, despite the illegalities in the plant’s operations, and it has the Chair of the regulator defending it.
The BCA Chair and Prax Concrete Ltd
Last April, Prax Concrete Ltd – owned by Joseph Portelli and his partners – Mark Agius known as Ta’ Dirjanu and Daniel Refalo – filed an appeal at the Public Contracts Review Board (PCRB) over a tender issued by the Munxar local council for the embellishment of a square.
Prax Concrete Ltd, despite operating an illegal concrete batching plant in a government-owned quarry in Kercem, claimed that the company should have been given the contract.
Despite illegally occupying public land, mounting an illegal batching plant and operating it without any permit, they are still being allowed to compete for public tenders. The company has even been paid hundreds of thousands of euros in direct orders for government projects, including the Gozo pool that resulted in the whole complex being dismantled.
None of the authorities responsible – the Planning Authority, the BCA, the Lands Authority and the police – have taken any action to close down Portelli’s illegal batching plant.
When Prax Concrete Ltd appeared before the PCRB to make its case on the Munxar local council tender last month, the Chair of the regulator was among those putting forward the company’s arguments – this is reflected in official documents.
Maria Schembri Grima was accompanying Mark Agius and a lawyer from Saliba Stafrace Legal – the firm co-owned by Ian Stafrace – a former CEO of the Planning Authority who is now acting as defence lawyer for Portelli.
The environment minister did not reply to questions on whether it is acceptable for the Chair of the construction industry regulator to present a case for a client operating an illegal batching plant. Nor did he reply to questions from The Shift months ago when it was revealed that Joseph Portelli was in fact one of her main clients.
Schembri Grima also did not reply to questions this time around. When The Shift had contacted her last month, asking her whether she saw the conflict in her role, she had downplayed the issue.
The Shift had revealed she is fronting a number of planning applications for massive development projects by Joseph Portelli and his associates, including turning the Dolphin supermarket in a quiet area of Balzan into 90 apartments.
Other contracts handed to Schembri Grima by her client include the Mayfair Residences project that will encompass some 46 flats overlooking one of Malta’s finest baroque villas – the 18th century Villa Bologna in Attard.
But Schembri Grima saw no conflict of interest, while the views of the Environment Minister remain unknown.
On paper, the legislation introducing the BCA enacted after Miriam Pace’s death empowers it to intervene whenever any building illegalities are reported, to make regular inspections and impose hefty fines where necessary.
In practice, the country is still waiting to see any of this happen.
Business as usual
A quick search by The Shift revealed a raft of development applications filed by Schembri Grima for the building of hundreds of apartments, both in Malta and in Gozo.
While Joseph Portelli does not normally appear on the applications, his collaborators are all over the place, including Mark Agius, Daniel Refalo, Clifton Cassar and Stephen Falzon. The latter two are co-owners of CF Developers Limited in which Joseph Portelli is the major shareholder.
Nearly all Schembri Grima’s applications involve the demolishing of old dwellings and the construction of massive blocks of apartments that change streetscapes in still relatively quiet villages, including prestigious areas such as Attard and Balzan.
Last month, Schembri Grima tried to play down her association with the Gozitan magnate, insisting with The Shift that Portelli was just “one of many clients”. In reality, research shows the major part of the BCA chair’s private practice is somehow associated with Portelli and his business associates.
The BCA, which has so far failed to deliver any tangible results, also includes representatives of developers and David Bonello on behalf of the PN.
It is an open secret that the two major political parties depend on large donations from developers for the running of their operations.