The Planning Authority (PA) has not responded to questions about Prime Minister Robert Abela conducting property deals with private clients while he was also serving as the PA’s lawyer.
The Shift asked the PA why it failed to take action on the conflict of interest posed by Abela being in business with alleged kidnapper and narcotics smuggler Christian Borg and, on a separate occasion, with Malta Gas Distributors Ltd shareholders Gilbert Bonnici and Simon Buhagiar.
The final stages of the property deals involving Borg, Bonnici and Buhagiar occurred between 2018 and 2019. Abela, who was a backbench MP at the time, served as the PA’s lawyer through a lucrative contract with Abela Advocates that increased to €17,110 per month by 2019, according to the Times of Malta.
Abela Advocates raked in a total of €1.2 million from 2013 to 2019 on its contract with the PA alone.
In September 2021, the PA blocked The Shift’s Freedom of Information request on fees paid to Abela Advocates, claiming the information was already in the public domain when in fact it was only partially available through parliamentary questions.
The lucrative contract breached public procurement rules because it had initially been awarded to George Abela, the prime minister’s father, and was extended repeatedly by the PA even after George Abela left the firm and was made President of Malta.
A new call should have been issued when the original 2001 contract lapsed. The extension of this contract, which excluded all the other legal firms that may have wanted to compete for it, allowed the Abelas to continue earning hundreds of thousands of euros.
Robert Abela’s links
Apart from the lucrative PA contract, Abela also made money from property deals with Borg, Bonnici and Buhagiar.
In 2016, with the help of Bonnici and Buhagiar as co-investors, Abela and his wife Lydia turned a €360,000 investment in a house in Iklin into a residential complex that was sold for a combined sum of more than €1 million by the end of 2019.
Bonnici is a director and shareholder of Bonnici Brothers, one of Malta’s biggest road building contractors. Buhagiar, known as ‘tal-Gass’, owns interests in the gas distribution business.
Bonnici and Buhagiar are also in business together through Malta Gas Distributors Ltd, a company owned by Buhagiar. Both were former clients of Abela Advocates through Malta Gas Distributors Ltd.
The Shift published an article in October 2021 that revealed how the PA has failed to take action for over a decade against planning infringements on agricultural land in Żabbar that was converted to a gas storage depot by Buhagiar.
Malta Gas Distributors Ltd came to public attention again last month in news reports about the arraignment of Borg and five other individuals in connection with a failed abduction attempt. All three parties — Borg, Malta Gas Distributors Ltd, and the Abelas — are linked through a promise-of-sale agreement that was passed from the company to the Abelas in June 2018, and from the Abelas to Borg in November of that same year.
In 2018, Robert and Lydia Abela signed a promise-of-sale agreement for a plot of land in Żabbar. Borg had applied for a planning permit to build nine apartments and garages on the same plot of land, despite having no public connection to it, and the permit was awarded on the same day that the Abelas closed their deal.
Robert Abela transferred the land to Borg months later, earning a €45,000 profit.
When asked whether he had carried out due diligence on Borg prior to doing business with him, Abela said it was up to the notary who oversaw the deal to ensure Borg’s funds were not illicit. The prime minister dismissed the stories linking him with Borg as “spin” without providing details.