Tista’ taqra l-artiklu bil-Malta hawn.
The fishermen’s cooperative, known as Għaqda Koperattiva tas-Sajd Ltd, is being investigated by the Cooperatives Board for its failure to submit audited accounts for the last seven years, The Shift has learned.
The latest accounts, filed in 2016, show that the auditors were already concerned about the financial situation of the cooperative – saying that they did not believe the accounts presented “a just and truthful account of the balance sheet of Għaqda Koperattiva tas-Sajd”.
The cooperative’s secretary is alleged fuel smuggler Paul Piscopo, while its vice president, Michael Carabott, was served with a year-long suspended sentence in January 2017 after he was arrested with three Egyptians who were found in possession of 50,000 ammunition rounds, according to court documents.
Meanwhile, the cooperative’s president openly boasts of his access to the Labour Party’s top brass.
Għaqda Koperattiva tas-Sajd was originally set up to directly negotiate the sale of fishermen’s catches and export their products. The inquiry into its finances was initiated by the Cooperatives Board – the official government entity serving as regulator and administrator for all cooperatives registered in Malta.
“The Cooperatives Board has, and still is, taking all administrative and legal steps to ensure the cooperative conforms to all its legal obligations,” a spokesperson for the Board told The Shift.
These responses came on the back of inquiries from The Shift regarding the annual accounts supposed to be filed by Għaqda Koperattiva tas-Sajd. The spokesperson informed this newsroom that no accounts have been filed since 2016 (for the year 2015).
A look at the list of debtors revealed that the bulk of pending payments owed by Għaqda Koperattiva tas-Sajd include the repayment of a €93,585 loan issued through the department of fisheries, VAT dues of €20,804 and missing NI contributions amounting to a total of €5,225. They also include around €100,000 in debt to commercial creditors, as well as unpaid bills for Transport Malta and the Mediterranean Offshore Bunkering Company Ltd., among other entities.
The Cooperatives Board that initiated the inquiry into the finances of Għaqda Koperattiva tas-Sajd told The Shift that the board has imposed applicable fines according to the deficiencies found, has issued all necessary mandates and has also set up an inquiry board.
“This inquiry board is still carrying out its work and is composed of Judge Emeritus Joseph Zammit McKeon and Mark Bugeja from Grant Thornton,” it said.
According to Article 13 of Chapter 442 of the Laws of Malta, the Cooperative Societies Act, the Cooperatives Board has the right to open its own inquiry into a cooperative’s affairs if there are reasonable and sufficient grounds to do so.
Article 14 adds that should the board’s findings outline shortcomings within the cooperative, it can either issue an order to rectify those shortcomings or dissolve the entity entirely.
The financial accounts available, dating back to 2016, show that the auditors had already sounded the alarm. “In our opinion, the financial declarations do not give a just and truthful account of the balance sheet of Għaqda Koperattiva tas-Sajd Ltd,” the auditors said.
The auditors were also unable to verify the recovery of funds from certain debtors, adding that by the end of 2016, Għaqda Koperattiva tas-Sajd had accumulated over €100,000 in debt. Consequently, the audit expressed concern about the “critical situation” that the cooperative would be in should it fail to recover its debts.
Overall, the net worth of the cooperative stands at -€108,326 (in the red), which essentially means that even if it does manage to recover the debt it is owed, there would not be any liquidity with which to pay back creditors.
The fish rots from the head
Industry sources spoke to The Shift about the power and influence that the cooperative’s secretary, Paul Piscopo, wields within the sector. He has retained his position on the fisheries board, a government entity that is supposed to oversee the industry, despite a colourful track record in court.
He is the same individual who unsuccessfully attempted to appeal a court decision that is backed by the AFM’s seizure of one of his vessels, the MFV Dimitra, in 2013 over a suspected contraband fuel operation.
In 2013, the crew of the MFV Dimitra was caught red-handed with over 34,600 litres of gas oil on board, 8,000 litres of which were undeclared. The ship’s monitoring system was also not functional. Throughout appeal proceedings instituted by Piscopo, a chemicals expert had confirmed that the undeclared gas oil could not have originated from a legally-approved source, according to court reports.
In spite of multiple court proceedings, one of which involved another seized vessel that was later returned to Piscopo on appeal, he nonetheless retained his position on the fisheries board.
Two well-known faces also previously sat on that board: Andreina Fenech Farrugia, the former director-general of the fisheries and aquaculture department who was embroiled in a massive corruption scandal in 2019, and Alicia Bugeja Said, who was recently appointed parliamentary secretary for the same sector.
Apart from Piscopo as secretary, the board of Għaqda Koperattiva tas-Sajd has Joseph Demicoli as president. He is an avid supporter of the Labour Party, regularly posting pictures on social media to prove it, including his access to some of the party’s current and former top brass.
Demicoli publicly posted images of himself with both current prime minister Robert Abela and disgraced former prime minister Joseph Muscat, along with more pictures with Muscat’s two equally disgraced bedfellows – former chief of staff to the prime minister, Keith Schembri, and former minister Konrad Mizzi. Demicoli even took his fawning support for the Party to the Eternal City, foisting the Party flag onto unsuspecting crowds at the famous Fontana di Trevi in Rome.
The vice-president of Għaqda Koperattiva tas-Sajd, Michael Carabott, was served with a suspended sentence in January 2017 when he was found in possession of 50,000 ammunition rounds. A brief video report on the case dating back to 2013 detailed how the consignment was likely headed towards Libya.