Economy Minister Silvio Schembri and the Malta Gaming Authority (MGA) have withheld important information from parliament regarding several direct orders given by the public authority over the past few years, an investigation by The Shift has found.
It is an infraction of the institution’s standing orders for government ministers and agencies to fail to provide information requested by parliament.
Following a parliamentary question from PN MP Ryan Callus a few weeks ago requesting a list of all direct orders given by the MGA since 2013, Economy Minister Silvio Schembri tabled a document which, he said, listed all the direct orders requested.
However, a close look at the document provided to parliament compared with information obtained by The Shift shows that several direct orders were not included in the list.
These include payments of tens of thousands of euros in taxpayers’ funds, paid through direct orders, to several consultants, which include Labour pollster Vince Marmara, lawyers Cory Greenland and Minister Miriam Dalli’s sister Veronique and newspaper Malta Today owned by the government’s PR consultant Saviour Balzan.
MGA first denies, then changes its tune
Contacted by The Shift to explain why the public authority withheld information from parliament, a spokesperson for the MGA initially insisted that “the MGA has never withheld and would never withhold information from parliament”.
When given details by The Shift on specific direct orders that were not included in the list supplied to parliament, the MGA changed its response.
“The information tabled in parliament refers to direct orders which have been approved by the Ministry of Finance direct orders office,” the MGA spokesman said.
Asked to explain further, as according to procurement rules all direct orders of a certain value (over €5,000) such as those given to Marmara and Malta Today must have first been approved by the Finance Ministry, the MGA said that in some cases there was an “error”.
Without specifying to which direct orders he was referring, the MGA spokesman told The Shift that the “MGA management at the time wrongfully assumed that these services could fall under the exemption of Public Procurement Rules dealing with audio-visual services, and therefore they could be procured directly by the MGA from its chosen suppliers without requiring such approval.”
Yet instead of rectifying this ‘error’, the MGA asked The Shift for a list of ‘omitted’ direct orders to be able to check it against the list it gave to parliament.
Omissions cover many years
The redacted information supplied to parliament left out direct orders mostly awarded in the period when disgraced CEO Joseph Cuschieri was at the helm of the MGA. However, more recent direct orders handed out by the current MGA administration were also left out of the list given to MPs.
A case in point is the hiring of Vince Marmara, who is being paid some €5,000 a month for unspecified ‘research and consultancy’ services.
Marmara already has a raft of other government assignments and direct orders, earning him thousands of euros a month. The pollster also conducts surveys for the Labour Party published in the GWU’s weekly ‘It-Torca’. It is not yet known whether the General Workers Union newspaper is paying for this exercise.
During his time at the helm of the MGA, Cuschieri – who formed part of Prime Minister’s Joseph Muscat’s inner circle – dished out millions of euros in direct orders. He also staffed the MGA with dozens of employees and consultants including Nexia BT’s Brian Tonna, the former Allied Newspapers Managing Director Adrian Hillman and Minister Konrad Mizzi’s then-assistant Lindsay Gambin.
The Shift is informed that the rush of direct orders is continuing at the MGA, now chaired by Ryan Pace – a young lawyer who was previously employed in the private legal office of Prime Minister Robert Abela.
While adherence to procurement rules at the MGA still appears to be lax, and being used to reward Labour party loyalists with lucrative contracts, the gaming industry is at a difficult juncture, particularly due to the island’s tarnished reputation and its recent greylisting by the FATF.
The MGA has been highlighted as a significant contributor to the loss of Malta’s international reputation, with two of its CEOs, Joseph Cuschieri and Heathcliff Farrugia, accused of abuse of power, leaking of sensitive information and unaccountability.
Cuschieri, handpicked for the job by disgraced former Prime Minister Joseph Muscat, was forced to resign from his post at the head of Malta’s financial services regulator, MFSA, after having been outed as having travelled to Las Vegas with Yorgen Fenech – the then-owner of companies that fell under the regulation of Cuschieri himself.
The trip was funded by Fenech and included Cuschieri’s general consul at the MGA, Edwina Licari. The lawyer later joined Cuschieri at the MFSA on a €100,000 a year position that she still holds.
Farrugia, who succeeded Cuschieri at the MGA, is currently facing criminal procedures in court for trading in influence while at the helm of the MGA.
He is now providing business and management consultancy to several private companies, including various companies in the gaming industry.