The Planning Authority has turned down an official request from The Shift for a list of the payments, amounting to hundreds of thousands of euros in public funds, disbursed to Robert Abela, his wife Lydia and their joint legal firm for the provision of legal services over the past ten years.
Replying to a Freedom of Information request, the PA – now under the political remit of Minister Aaron Farrugia – defended its failure to supply the information about fees paid to the Prime Minister and his family by arguing that the information is already in the public domain and is therefore excluded from the law underpinning the FOI act.
Despite the PA’s claim, the only available information about the payments to Abela and his firm is scattered through a raft of sporadic parliamentary questions which do not give a clear and complete picture. Legal sources told The Shift that the PA is abusing the law to “defend the prime minister.”
The Shift has appealed the PA’s decision to withhold the information.
Millions passed on to the Abelas
The relationship between the Abelas and the Planning Authority goes back almost two decades, having started with the Prime Minister’s father, former President George Abela.
In 2001, the Nationalist government awarded a substantial contract to the former Labour Party deputy leader to provide legal services to the PA. The deal, agreed after a call for expressions of interest rather than a fully-fledged tender, was worth tens of thousands of euros a year, an amount that ballooned over the following years.
The contract coincided with George Abela’s decision to accept the then government’s invitation to join a core committee preparing for Malta’s accession to the EU. The Labour Party of the time aggressively opposed Malta’s membership.
At the time, Abela’s legal firm included Ian Stafrace as a partner. A few years later Stafrace was appointed CEO of the same Planning Authority.
He remained in the post until 2013 when he was forced to resign.
Stafrace, who set up his own legal firm after Prime Minister Robert Abela joined his father’s practice, now represents some of Malta’s top rogue developers – including Gozo magnate Joseph Portelli and Transport Minister Ian Borg.
The PA’s deal with the Abelas law firm continued uninterrupted. Instead of issuing a new call when the original 2001 contract lapsed, the PA repeatedly extended its legal services contract with the Abelas – even after Abela senior left the firm after he was made President of Malta – right up to 2020 when Abela junior became Prime Minister.
The extension of this contract, which excluded all the other legal firms that may have wanted to compete for it, allowed the Abelas to continue earning hundreds of thousands of euros
Research conducted by The Shift from information available shows that by 2011, the PA had paid Abela Advocates over €1.2 million. And, after Labour was returned to power in 2013, the Abelas continued to charge substantial fees, calculated to run into more than €120,000 a year.
So far, the total of amount public funds paid by the PA to Abela Advocates remains unquantified, and the PA persists in withholding the information.
The estimated millions paid by taxpayers to the Abelas may help shed some light on the sources of the wealth that the Abela couple have already accumulated in their early forties, after a short legal career.
The Shift has already revealed that Robert and Lydia Abela own three properties, one in Gozo and two in Malta, estimated to have a value of over €3 million. They have no bank mortgages on these properties and have declared some €500,000 in savings in various bank accounts.
The Prime Minister also owns a large yacht, with an estimated purchase price of €300,000, which costs tens of thousands of euros every year to maintain.
Currently, the Prime Minister is on a salary of just €60,000 a year.
The Shift has also revealed that when the Abelas were the PA’s lawyers, they were involved in property development, investing in partnership with two businessmen – Gilbert Bonnici of road constructors Bonnici Brothers and Simon Buhagiar, an LPG distributor from Zabbar – in a project to turn a terraced house in Iklin into a block of flats.
This investment paid off generously: all the apartments were sold just before Abela beat Chris Fearne for the leadership of the Labour Party.
Since Labour returned to power in 2013, both Robert and Lydia Abela received tens of thousands of euros in other direct orders, including from Air Malta, Arms Ltd and the Environment Ministry.