A parliamentary question published on Wednesday revealed that the office of the prime minister (OPM) spent at least €426,453 since 2017 on contracts for advisory services provided by lawyers close to the Labour party, including former MPs and current Prime Minister Robert Abela himself from his time as backbencher.
The most expensive contracts overall were awarded to former home affairs minister and current British High Commissioner Manuel Mallia and former parliamentary secretary for lands and current MDA director-general Deborah Schembri, whose services were both retained for three years at a total cost of €245,802.
Both Mallia and Schembri are known for receiving privileged appointments in government circles as well as other contracts and direct orders amounting to hundreds of thousands of euros. Bizarrely, Abela was also retained for three years in an advisory role but, in his reply to the parliamentary question filed by Opposition MP David Thake, claimed to have received no pay whatsoever for these services throughout those three years.
Questions have been sent to Abela’s spokespersons to determine why Abela was the only one not being compensated at a rate of €40,967 a year in the same way Mallia and Schembri were compensated. At the time, Abela was making a substantial amount of money through legal services he was offering to the Planning Authority.
The only other person on the list who apparently offered their legal services pro bono did so for one of three years in which he was employed by OPM – Ishmael Psaila, a lawyer who is currently a part of disgraced former OPM chief-of-staff Keith Schembri’s legal team in relation to Schembri’s court cases related to money laundering.
While Psaila was paid a total of €36,000 for two years of unspecified legal services, Abela’s answer to the parliamentary question states that he was not paid for work carried out between 2 August 2020 and 3 August of this year. Psaila began representing Schembri in court earlier this year.
Besides Mallia, Schembri and Abela, another MP and sitting parliamentary secretary on the list is Stefan Zrinzo Azzopardi, who has been in charge of Malta’s EU funds since 15 January of last year. According to the data tabled in Parliament, Zrinzo Azzopardi was paid €6,000 a year from 1 July 2016 to 30 September 2019, when the parliamentary secretary was a backbencher MP.
Another person on the list is Alex Sciberras, a lawyer who The Shift had exposed for his role in advising the office of the prime minister on the infamous ITS deal which led to Silvio Debono’s DB Group paying just €15 million for land that was estimated to be worth around €400 million.
For his advisory services offered from 1 March 2016 to 29 June 2018, Sciberras was paid a total of €81,934. Sciberras had drafted the requirements of the original request for proposals, took a leading role in negotiations and drafted the terms of the final deed.
It is not entirely clear which Ian Borg is being referred to in the parliamentary question, given there are at least two known people in government bearing that name who could both possibly have been awarded this legal advisory position. Questions have been sent to clarify the matter.
Having said that, the Shift’s analysis indicates that the parliamentary question is likely referring to Ian Borg, a young lawyer who was reportedly touted as current finance minister Clyde Caruana’s successor when the latter vacated the role of Abela’s chief-of-staff last year, and who was placed on an ongoing retainer from January 2020 on a salary of €40,967.
The only non-politically affiliated appointment of a legal officer by the OPM over the past legislature was the week-long job assigned to Daniel Sarmiento, a Spanish lawyer specialising in EU law who was hired by the government when it was facing European Court of Justice proceedings relating to local processes for the appointment of judges and magistrates.
Sarmiento was paid a total of €3,750 for his week-long legal representation of the Maltese government in the case which was initiated by NGO Repubblika.
Featured photo (from top-left to right, then bottom-left to right):
British High Commissioner Manuel Mallia, MDA director-general Deborah Schembri, prime minister Robert Abela;
Parliamentary secretary for EU Funds Stefan Zrinzo Azzopardi, former OPM advisor Alex Sciberras, lawyer Ishmael Psaila, OPM lawyer Ian Borg.