Gozo Minister Clint Camilleri has confirmed that the government has terminated its contract with White Flag, a fraudulent organisation exposed by The Shift after it hoodwinked the PL administration and several corporate sponsors in 2018 and pocketed at least two hundred thousand euros for work it didn’t do.
The revelation means that The Shift’s investigation into the scam, and subsequent exposure of its main perpetrators, has potentially saved Maltese taxpayers, and those in several other countries, millions of euros that would have otherwise have been stolen in a criminal racket that stretched right across the globe and was aimed at taking advantage of citizens’ growing concerns about environmental issues.
Here in Malta, the government has been tight-lipped about the aftermath of The Shift’s investigation, until now. In a reply to a parliamentary question from opposition MP Chris Said, tabled on 5 July, Camilleri said that the government had “immediately” cancelled the contract it had signed with White Flag after “allegations of fraud” emerged from The Shift’s investigation.
This is the first time the government has fully disclosed what actions it took after The Shift’s investigation exposed White Flag and its main promoter, Kristijan Curavić, as swindlers who hoovered up some €200,000 for ‘cleaning up’ seven beaches across Malta and Gozo.
One major red flag that ought to have alerted the government to the crooked scheme was the fact that sponsor money was going directly into a bank account in Zagreb.
In reality, the organisation, which charged around €25,000 – €30,000 per beach not just in Malta but in other, similar scams across the world – including in Curavić’s home country of Croatia – failed to deliver on promises to provide “plastic-free beaches”.
Curavić fled Malta in December 2018, after the first reports in The Shift’s investigation were published. It took two years for Curavić to issue a legal letter to The Shift in an attempt to claim €300,000 in damages, a media threat which was then taken up by the Council of Europe.
The Shift stood by its investigation, choosing instead to publish the legal letter in full.
Now, a video interview published on 8 July on a daily news portal based in Zagreb reveals that Curavić is promoting White Flag again, and is seeking to “organise a summit that will bring together representatives of 180 countries from around the world”.
Curavić claims in this interview that his Malta project had been scuppered by “a small private portal of the opposition party” – an identical assertion to that made by the Maltese government before Curavić was finally kicked out, and one which ignored all evidence presented against his case.
White Flag’s success in duping these countries was helped significantly by the veneer of legitimacy it gained through its appropriation of the logos of genuine entities such as the Prince Albert II of Monaco Foundation, which later distanced itself from Curavić, as did Bianca Jagger.
A project for another 40 White Flags in Seychelles was also dropped following The Shift’s investigation.
“I did not react adequately so the affair ended and we withdrew from Malta,” the Croatian portal quotes him as saying, without mentioning that even his partner in Malta had abandoned Curavić before he fled, keeping the money he had made from the scam. Igaming companies that had sponsored White Flags after government ministers were falling over themselves for positive PR from the initiative were attempting to sue to retrieve their money but they found no support from the government.
In his interview, Curavić also failed to mention what the Gozo minister said earlier this week about the contract signed with White Flag and the fact that it was terminated immediately, and also failing to make any mention of the associations and individuals who had publicly distanced themselves from him.
Curavić fell back on opposition-blaming to justify White Flag’s failure in Malta, citing his “political inexperience” for not understanding “the functioning of opposition parties in other countries”. He goes on to brand anyone not associated with the Labour administration that fell for his scam without running any due diligence as part of the “opposition”.
At the time, White Flag had roped in high-ranking Maltese officials to further bolster its image and credibility, including then-environment minister Jose’ Herrera, former Gozo minister Justyne Caruana and deputy prime minister Chris Fearne, as well as former president Marie-Louise Coleiro Preca.
“After we awarded the White Flags, the opposition party started accusing the government of laundering funds through White Flag,” he said. In reality, the Opposition Party was completely unaware of what was going on.
December 2018: the scam begins to crack
After The Shift began reporting on the con it had uncovered in its investigation into White Flag, the first cracks in the bogus operation surfaced in late 2018 when Curavić’s local partner, Steve Abela, severed all ties with him. Abela himself was the president of White Flag International.
This was followed by the Monaco Foundation’s withdrawal, after which corporate sponsors from a group of prominent igaming companies began to officially roll back on their support as well. Curavić fled the island shortly afterwards.
Former employees who had worked on previous similar projects handled by Curavić in Croatia also came forward with accusations of fraud.
Maja Stanivuković, a diver who had been contracted for a White Flag ‘clean-up’, said that Curavić had used funds meant for the project for his own entertainment purposes, including dinners and cars.
Celebrities whose names had been used in an attempt to bolster White Flag’s credibility also dissociated themselves, including rights ambassador Bianca Jagger.
In February 2019, then-environment minister Jose’ Herrera confirmed that “action will be taken” against White Flag when pressed by activist Camilla Appelgren, who was an integral part of The Shift’s investigation into the dishonest scheme. However, to date, the government has not announced what that action might be or when it will take place.
Herrera’s ministry at the time shot down a freedom of information request for access to communications between itself and Curavić’s scam.
Another FOI request that was filed on behalf of The Shift did manage to reveal that the Gozo ministry had paid €29,000 in taxpayer money for just one beach in Gozo to be ‘accredited’ with a White Flag, with no tangible improvement in the environment of that, or any other beach, awarded the meaningless accreditation that was meant to deliver a “plastic-free” marine environment.