Just five of The Shift’s multiple investigations into government-issued direct order contracts revealed that the irregular practice cost the country at least €89.2 million.
These five investigations alone uncovered an estimated 461 direct orders, negotiated procedure tenders and contracts, many of which were awarded to persons or business groups with known links with the governing Labour Party, issued in the two six-month periods since July 2020.
In December of last year, the National Audit Office published a report lambasting public procurement irregularities across the board, including resorting to direct orders without approval, signing agreements after works commence, and not publishing direct orders in the Government Gazette as required by law.
In spite of the National Audit Office’s repeated warnings after the myriad probes it carried out to determine the validity of deals between government and the private sector, these condemned practices remain a staple in the government’s way of operating. The five stories highlighted below are just a few examples of the extent of this now-commonplace malfeasance.
Fearne’s COVID spending spree
Health minister Chris Fearne assigned €60 million in direct orders over the first six months of 2021, of which €23.5 million went to companies or joint ventures belonging to figures intimately linked with the Labour Party.
Many of the direct orders came under the blanket excuse of plugging holes in Malta’s healthcare system as it struggled to keep up with the burdens imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Through various jointly-owned companies, Silvio Debono from DB Group and James Barbara from James Caterers netted €20 million in contracts in six months, both of whom are known Party donors.
A week before the investigation mentioned above was published by The Shift, a separate investigation highlighting another contract awarded to Debono and Barbara worth €8 million over 12 months for the provision of nursing and caring services was also exposed.
The husband of Fearne’s former personal assistant, Mark Sammut, who was also recently handpicked to run Public Broadcasting Services, was awarded €1 million in direct orders, including the provision of the digital COVID-19 vaccination system.
St James’ Hospital Group, whose CEO Jean Claude Muscat is a personal friend of Fearne, was awarded €2.7 million in direct orders in the first six months of this year.
Borg’s road-builder gravy train
Infrastructure minister Ian Borg, largely through the State agency Infrastructure Malta, awarded €10.5 million in direct orders throughout the first six months of this year.
A prominent recipient of these road-building contracts is Bonnici Group, a major player in local construction that has featured in several investigations compiled by The Shift for their close ties with Prime Minister Robert Abela. In 2021, Bonnici Group were granted five direct orders worth €1.2 million.
A serious breach of public procurement law has been repeatedly flagged and ignored by the government’s awarding of several contracts to Kosta JV, a consortium of road-builders that includes Charles ‘iċ-Ċaqnu’ Polidano, who was supposedly blacklisted by Infrastructure Malta.
Despite the agency’s own claims, Kosta JV was awarded an additional €1.1 million in works which were not even stipulated as part of a tender but were instead added on top of works that were supposed to have been finished, such as the Canon Road Bypass.
Camilleri’s battle for Gozo
Gozo minister Clint Camilleri spared no taxpayer expense in his attempts to sway Gozitan voters as former Gozo ministers Anton Refalo and Justyne Caruana reportedly jostle for control of the ministry. €7.5 million on 101 direct orders were spent by Camilleri’s ministry over the last six months of 2020.
The regeneration of a part of Marsalforn’s coastline known as Tal-Menqa involved a direct order that was extended at least four times to cater for ‘additional works’ over and above the €800,000 that had already been awarded for the project. The four additions were worth at least €370,000.
The contractor responsible for the works, Simon Grech, also received another direct order via his company, iCare Ltd, for the provision of transport in a private home for the elderly in which Grech is also a shareholder. The running of the facility itself is almost fully financed through the Gozo ministry.
Grech’s partner, Maria Farrugia, is a person of trust at Camilleri’s ministry. Camilleri spent the rest of the €7.5 million tab largely on similar landscaping and embellishment works, with the refurbishment and inauguration of one statue of St Francis in Rabat amounting to a total of €473,000 in various direct orders.
Herrera’s pandemic handouts
During the last six months of 2020, which saw extended bans on mass events, restrictions on gatherings and the closure of most entertainment venues, Culture Minister Jose’ Herrera and the Heads of his ministry’s various events agencies managed to cobble together 240 direct orders worth €3.2 million.
Valletta Cultural Agency Chairman and head of Labour’s chief media outlet Jason Micallef dished out 32 direct orders worth almost half a million euros, including two direct orders worth €20,000 to Fortina Group.
One of Labour’s stalwart business associates, logistics suppliers for mass meetings, Nexos, provided lighting for a pageant directed by Labour-favoured producer Mario Azzopardi. €52,000 was spent on lighting provided by Nexos.
Festivals Malta, chaired by Labour TV host and travel agent Norman Hamilton, spent a total of €540,000 on 60 different direct orders, the bulk of which were spent on a festival called ‘Mużika Mużika’.