The concession of public property at Sa Maison to disgraced former prime minister Joseph Muscat for use as an office was deemed “illegal” by lawyers consulted by The Shift.
Several legal experts told The Shift that Abela has no authority to approve the deal. “According to the laws of Malta, the government has no right to transfer any of its public property to third parties if not through a proper tendering process, also in the case of a lease or through an ad hoc parliamentary resolution,” a seasoned lawyer said.
“While none of this has been done, there is no other legal way in which any Maltese government can permit the use of public property by a third party. Technically speaking, in the eyes of the law, Joseph Muscat is squatting public property and the government is obliged to order his removal.”
The concession, which according to Prime Minister Robert Abela formed part of Muscat’s “severance package”, is a first. Apart from Muscat, none of Malta’s prime ministers was ever given public property for their personal use.
Following various investigative reports published by The Shift since last summer, when it was discovered that Muscat was given an extraordinary €120,000 golden handshake and the use of public property at Sa Maison, journalists asked the prime minister to confirm these reports and provide an explanation.
Prime Minister lies to journalists
Visibly uncomfortable, Abela confirmed the information but declined to give any further details, saying: “All the information has been given through Freedom of Information (FOI) requests and other questions to the OPM”.
The prime minister’s declarations contrast sharply with the facts, as Abela and his office have been stonewalling requests for information on the package his predecessor was given for months.
An exercise carried out by The Shift last year, through various FOIs asking for details of Muscat’s terminal benefits were turned down by the OPM, which insisted that it had “no documents” in its possession regarding Muscat’s terminal benefits.
Following The Shift’s challenge over this refusal, the OPM insisted with the Data Protection Commissioner that it had no documents on Muscat’s golden handshake, barring the Commissioner from further investigations.
Apart from the FOIs, usually used as the last resort, the OPM also refused to reply to various questions sent by The Shift to both Abela’s spokesman, Matthew Carbone, and his Chief of Staff Glenn Micallef. OPM senior officials ignored all requests despite various reminders sent.
What we know so far
According to a Cabinet scheme introduced in 2008, published following an investigation by the NAO, former members of Cabinet, including prime ministers, are entitled to a terminal and transitional benefit scheme that results in a one-time payment of a taxable lump sum and, in rare cases, a transitional allowance during the first three years following the politician’s resignation (see list of beneficiaries here).
The scheme does not allow any other form of compensation or the use of public property.
However, The Shift has revealed that twice, in 2018 and 2019, the scheme was secretly amended by the Labour Cabinet for Muscat’s own benefit. When asked, even in parliament, to publish these amendments, Robert Abela has consistently refused.
Muscat’s amendments to the scheme remain a secret closely guarded by Prime Minister Abela.