Azzopardi Fisheries, one of the companies that funded the electoral campaign for the new junior minister for fisheries, Alicia Bugeja Said, is in breach of the law for not filing audited accounts for AJD Tuna Ltd since it was set up in 2000.
The controversial company is a major player in the industry, boasting it has the largest capacity in the Mediterranean for Bluefin tuna farms distributing to the lucrative Japanese market, while owning retail outlets throughout the country and even diversifying its portfolio and entering the construction market.
Bugeja Said declared she received €1,200 in donations from AJD Tuna Ltd. While suspicions have already been raised on the veracity of the declarations submitted under oath, Bugeja Said has declared she has “no conflict of interest” when questioned by The Times of Malta despite the fact that she is now in a key position to pass legislation that would directly affect her donors.
Bugeja Said further stated that she had declared campaign income according to electoral laws and that people should judge her based on the work she will be doing in her new role. Each operator in the industry is affected by the decisions she takes ranging from fish quotas to licences.
During the 22 years since AJD Tuna was first incorporated, Azzopardi Group, which owns AJD Tuna Ltd, has built a massive empire that dominates the fishing sector. Brothers Charles and Anthony Azzopardi are behind the name.
Besides its flagship outlet in St Paul’s Bay, Azzopardi Group also owns Marsa Cold Stores Ltd, an entity that it purchased from Valhmor Borg in 2011. The group also owns the Miracle Foods chain of retail outlets, a packing plant known as Food Pro Malta, an exclusive licence for the SPAR franchise in Malta, 75% of shares in the Fort Cambridge project, and 40% of shares in the Balluta Terrace restaurant.
Besides failing to file accounts for AJD Tuna, Azzopardi Group flouted permit regulations in relation to their tuna penning operations as well. In 2019, The Shift had exposed how, in spite of then-environment minister Jose’ Herrera’s declaration in parliament that illegal tuna cages owned by Azzopardi Group were ordered to be removed, more cages were added instead.
Bugeja Said’s other declared campaign donors have also raised eyebrows. An even larger donation of €2,500 came from MFF Ltd, a fish farming venture owned by Ebcon Investments Ltd, a company linked with the Elbros Group.
Elbros had established a company known as Aquaculture Resources Ltd involving Charles Azzopardi and, among others, Herrera’s former private secretary Charlon Gouder. As for the group’s construction company, it is one of the largest beneficiaries of government contracts in Malta.
From 2019 to 2021, Elbros Construction Ltd was the largest recipient of direct orders from Infrastructure Malta.
Other listed donors included St Catherine’s Ltd, a catering business, Frutti di Mare, a fish distributor, Nexos Lighting, a lighting and logistics supplier widely known to be linked with the Labour Party, Tal-Ingliż restaurant and Smart Garage.
While it is yet to be seen what Bugeja Said will be doing in her new position, she has a past at the scandal-ridden Fisheries Board – a government entity meant to oversee the sector.
Bugeja Said was appointed to that board on 30 March 2021, two years after Andreina Fenech Farrugia was suspended on full pay following an investigation that revealed she was allegedly soliciting bribes from Jose’ Fuentes, a major player in tuna farming in the Mediterranean.
Another member, Paul Piscopo, is being investigated for getting caught red-handed with 8,400 litres of undeclared diesel oil. The cooperative in which Piscopo served as secretary, Għaqda Koperattiva tas-Sajd, is currently under investigation for failing to have filed audited accounts since 2016.