Prime Minister Robert Abela and his wife Lydia banked hundreds of thousands of euros in profits from a property development investment they made together with two businessmen in 2016, the year before the son of President Emeritus George Abela was elected a Labour MP, The Shift can reveal.
Investigations by The Shift show that this investment is one of the main sources of the wealth divulged by the prime minister in his latest declaration of assets.
According to public documents seen by The Shift, the couple spent €180,000 on buying a half share in a terraced house in Giovanni Curmi Steet, Iklin. The other half share was bought by their partners in the project, Simon Buhagiar from Zabbar and Gilbert Bonnici, a director and shareholder of one of the largest road building contractors on the island – Bonnici Brothers of Burmarrad.
The €360,000 house was demolished and replaced by six apartments, garages and penthouses. The three investors then sold all the units in shell form between 2018 and 2019 for the combined sum of more than €1 million.
Within six months of the 2016 purchase, the Planning Authority had issued a development permit for the project, and works on the demolition and construction, under architect Roderick Camilleri, started in February 2017.
By January 2018, the prime minister and his partners had already started signing contracts to sell the apartments in shell form, with all the newly built units sold by June 2019, just six months before Abela became Prime Minister.
In total, according to various contracts signed, the Iklin investment netted its investors over €1 million in sales.
The prime minister’s partners
So far it is not known what business connections Prime Minister Abela has with his property development partners and what ties brought them together.
Questions sent to the OPM for clarification were ignored by Abela’s spokesman, Matthew Carbone.
Neither Abela nor his spouse appear to be involved in any other business ventures together with the Buhagiar-Bonnici duo.
However, Buhagiar, better known as Simon tal-Gass from Zabbar, a former client of Robert Abela, and Gilbert Bonnici, the son of Leli Bonnici of Bonnici Brothers, are involved in business together through a company called Malta Gas Distributors Ltd, owned by Buhagiar and of which Bonnici is a director and board secretary.
Gilbert Bonnici is also an established businessman in his own right, involved in various companies with multi-million turnovers.
Bonnici has shareholdings in a number of commercial entities, including property development companies and building and road contractors. He is currently managing director of Bonnici Brothers – one of the largest building contractors on the island and winner of several multi-million contracts and direct orders, particularly since 2013, under the Labour government.
Only last September, the prime minister paid a visit to a quarry owned by the Bonnici Group and inaugurated a €2.1 million investment in new machinery purchased through a Malta Enterprise scheme. The PA judged that the project, which entailed the building of several large concrete structures, did not need a development permit.
The prime minister’s properties
The Abelas currently live in a sea-front apartment in Marsascala, however they are known to own two large properties, each with a sizeable garden and pool, in Gozo and in Malta.
The Abelas acquired their 560-square metre house in Xewkija when they were in their early 30s. They’ve now applied for and are expecting a PA permit to make substantial alterations to the property, which was already upgraded in 2017 when, through their architect Joe Cassar, the Abelas were given a permit to build a large pool in the garden.
It is not known how much the Abelas paid to acquire this property.
In 2017, the pair also purchased, without a mortgage or loan, a house situated on a two-tumoli property in a rural area close to the San Niklaw chapel on the outskirts of Zejtun for €600,000.
The previous owner of the Zejtun property, which has a large pool and a duck pond, had had to apply for a sanctioning permit from the PA as many of the residence’s extensions were built illegally.
The sanction request was approved by the PA just a few weeks before the signing of the final contract with the Abelas.
Robert and Lydia Abela have not moved into the house, nor have they applied for planning permission to make any changes to their most recently acquired property.
The prime minister’s wealth
According to his latest declaration of assets, the prime minister and his wife appear comfortably well-off for a couple in their early 40s who have worked for fewer than 20 years.
Apart from owning the three properties listed above, the Abelas declaration of assets indicates that they have no loans to repay and have accumulated some €500,000 in savings in various bank accounts.
Last year, The Shift also revealed that Robert Abela had bought a second-hand Azimut yacht for an estimated €300,000, a boat that also costs tens of thousands of euros a year to maintain. Again, no loans were taken to finance this purchase.
According to their latest income tax declarations, the Abelas – both lawyers by profession – declared a combined income of €193,478 in 2017, €145,264 in 2018 and €252,285 in 2019.
After becoming prime minister, Robert Abela’s personal income dropped and he’s now earning an annual salary of €60,000.
Legal sources told The Shift that Lydia Abela is no longer practising as a lawyer.