Joseph Portelli, the Gozitan building contractor who appeared out of nowhere to blight the country with hideous concrete apartment blocks, has given his very first media interview. The man, who employs an alleged fraudster as CFO of his company, insisted he hasn’t a clue what he’s worth. He doesn’t care about money, he said.
Someone should tell him it’s not wise to smirk when you say things like that.
He put his head down to try and disguise the little laughs that escaped as he said this, several times over. The developer behind some of the most monstrously ugly buildings on both Malta and Gozo is, according to himself, doing it as a public service.
Portelli tried to portray himself as an amiable, straightforward rags-to-riches story, who as a truant schoolboy began running canteens in the very schools he should still have been attending. His father, apparently a fisherman, helped him, “from the little that he had” and Portelli bought a house that he turned into a mini-market.
That’s how the developer got his start, he said. He didn’t like school, so he left. His father, instead of marching him back through the school gates every day, handed over his life savings and set him on the path he’s on today: doing whatever he likes, by fair means or foul, to get what he wants.
No wonder he’s not only totally unrepentant but patently, nauseatingly, self-satisfied about the horrors with which he’s plagued Malta’s towns and villages. His Gozitan vowels thickened as the interview wore on; tedious self-praise poorly disguised as humility, interspersed with the revelations that made it clear who the real Joseph Portelli is.
Many have asked, how’s it even possible that the Planning Authority issued building permits for several of Portelli’s most offensive eyesores, such as the Xlendi monstrosity. Well, he’s told us now. He bypasses the Planning Authority altogether and goes directly to the politicians. If they don’t support his projects, he said, he drops them.
He speaks to politicians “every day,” he said. “I need them to help me,” he said, seemingly oblivious to the scandal he was confessing. They “speed up the process” for him, he said.
A friend who watched the interview afterwards asked me, do you think he’s so totally naïve that he doesn’t realise what he’s just admitted, or is he so arrogant that he doesn’t care how appalling his admission about his relationships with politicians is?
Indeed. The politicians “sort things out for him,” he said, several times, to his interviewer. That’s how things work, he said, shrugging off the implications swirling thickly around his head, while declaring that he donates money to “all” political parties.
That’s how things work, in corrupt, compromised Malta, where the quality of the politicians is as abysmal as that of Portelli’s constructions. Gatekeepers for crooks, for developers too arrogant, too greedy, to obey the rules or respect the population whose lives he’s blighting.
The whole tone of the interview was nauseating. The location, on the roof of the hideous Mercury Tower that he, incredibly, believes will attract tourists, that he, incredibly, claimed to have done local residents a favour by building because it gives them something to look at, was a symbol of what he believes he’s achieved vs what he has really achieved.
The interviewer, Mark Lawrence Zammit, praised the view but failed to note the rusty looking metal mesh enclosing the rooftop. Unfinished, ugly, dangerous-looking and ignored. Portelli sat there proudly, boasting of the view, oblivious of the shabby, careless impression created by the makeshift mesh.
Portelli declared, proudly, that the CFO of his company is John Dalli’s daughter, Claire Gauci Borda. Gauci Borda, along with her sister Louise Dalli and four foreign nationals who have all died since the case began, has been charged with money laundering, fraud, misappropriation of funds, making a false declaration to a public authority and falsification of documents.
Zammit failed to ask Portelli, when he bragged about how “smart” Gauci Borda is, whether it’s a problem to have a CFO who’s allegedly committed some of the most serious financial crimes on the books.
But, it seems, Portelli may owe Dalli, charged with soliciting million-dollar bribes while serving as EU Commissioner in Brussels, a few favours. It seems Dalli took Portelli with him to Libya at some point, when the latter was keen to do some work in that country. No further detail was offered, nor requested, and so we’re left wondering what, if anything, that episode produced for Portelli. Or Dalli, himself, for that matter.
Portelli’s open declaration that he expects the politicians who scrabble around in the dirt to gather up the pennies he tosses to them to help him get his projects approved and underway, puts certain of those projects into sharp relief.
He revealed that he’s part of the consortium that’s bought the site of the old Jerma Hotel and will be developing it into a complex of luxury apartments and a new hotel. He said he’s been working on the “plans” for the past 18 months. He also claimed he’s got nothing to do with the controversial Marsascala marina project, though he would get involved if he could.
Given that, as far as we know, there is no developer yet for the marina project – Prime Minister Robert Abela stressed at the end of last month that no concrete proposals have yet been made – this was an odd statement to make. Unless it was a fishing trip, of course. Or a reminder to someone, somewhere, of something we’re not privy to.
Portelli did say something we should all take careful note of though. He admitted that if people protest loudly enough, if they shout resoundingly enough, he’ll back down and give up on unpopular projects.
Apparently, he doesn’t like “negative publicity”.
So, if we don’t like the look of his “projects” we should all make sure to make an absolute racket of dissent and disapproval… and he’ll abandon the project. He gave the example of a “tiny house” he wanted to build on a “small” piece of ODZ land in Qala: the mayor and lots of other people were so incensed by it and opposed it so strenuously that he decided to turn down the permit he was offered.
The interviewer didn’t press him on this, or ask for detail, but it was clear Portelli was referring to the permit he was issued to build a villa with a pool on ODZ land, ostensibly “converting” a ruined room that stood on the site.
So not really a “tiny house” house then. Nor a “small piece of land.”
But he insisted. It’s wrong to build on ODZ, I never do, he said. Qala? Oh, it was only a small piece of ODZ land. His daughter Chloe’s “agricultural store”? They were so mean to her, they called her names, they called her ‘Chloe the Farmer’, he said.
I just wanted a garden, he said. Zammit missed the irony there, or couldn’t be bothered to address it. We all had a “garden” – our once-beautiful little island in the Mediterranean, with pretty stone villages and idyllic bays surrounded by tumbling valleys lush with carob and fig trees, children playing and adults resting.
Thanks to the greed of Portelli and his ilk, the politicians that crave his money and the officials that do their bidding, our garden is gone. Zammit asked Portelli whether people in a hundred years’ time would want to preserve Mercury Towers the way we preserve historical buildings from the Knights’ period.
The deluded building contractor said he thinks they will. He’s wrong. He’ll be remembered, but not kindly. He’ll be remembered as one of the clutch of unscrupulous developers so venal, so shameless, that they ravaged an entire country to satisfy their greed.