Man charged with human trafficking hired by Lands Authority last year, now set for promotion

Kurt Buhagiar, who was arrested and held in a Sicilian prison for his role in a human trafficking operation, works as an administrative officer at Lands Authority

 

Tista’ taqra dan l-artiklu bil-Malti hawn.

Kurt Buhagiar, who was caught red-handed as one of three accomplices in a high-speed powerboat chase with Italy’s Guardia di Finanza in 2009 and was subsequently imprisoned on charges of human trafficking, was hired by the Lands Authority last year and is reportedly about to be given a promotion.

Buhagiar, who was 25 when he and two accomplices, Jose’ Xerri, Michael Aquilina, were caught by Italian police smuggling 19 migrants – who were hiding in a compartment inside the powerboat they were using for their illegal activity – into Sicily, was arrested and subsequently incarcerated in 2010.

According to news reports from 2009, the Guardia di Finanza’s patrol vessels chased them for an hour and a half before eventually catching up with the traffickers. Buhagiar and Xerri were later charged with human trafficking, obstruction of justice and attempting to ram police vessels.

One report from 2011 indicates that Buhagiar and Xerri were serving prison terms but it does not specify whether they were being held under arrest until parallel investigations were concluded or whether they were officially convicted.

A photo of the three individuals arrested by Italian police – Jose’ Xerri, Kurt Buhagiar (centre), Michael Aquilina.

Despite having been charged with such serious crimes, Buhagiar was hired by the Lands Authority as a driver for CEO Robert Vella in February last year. He now also occupies the position of administrative officer with an annual basic salary of €21,357. In February 2021, Vella had just been installed as CEO following the resignation of his predecessor, James Piscopo.

Buhagiar is treated as the CEO’s de facto right-hand man within the Authority, sources have explained, saying that Buhagiar is now set for a promotion to the role of senior administration officer – a move that is expected to be announced soon. This would mean Buhagiar will be entitled to earn up to €24,519.

Before his redeployment to the Lands Authority, Buhagiar worked as a fitter with the Water Services Corporation, and was recruited during the period the entity fell under the responsibility of disgraced former Energy Minister Konrad Mizzi.

In August 2011, after Buhagiar and Xerri were in custody in a Ragusa jail for over a year, the Italian police also managed to identify and capture the mastermind of the operation, a man named Adam Kunati – who was extradited from France to Italy that same month.

According to Italian prosecutors, while Buhagiar, Xerri and Aquilina were involved in the actual smuggling of migrants escaping from Libya to either Malta or Sicily, Kunati would organise the groups of migrants to be trafficked by the three Maltese individuals, while keeping a percentage of the profits for himself.

All the people involved in the trafficking ring were monitored, arrested, charged and imprisoned under the umbrella of ‘Operazione Double Impact’, with the orders for arrest issued through Magistrates Salvatore Giampicco and Carmelo Petralia.

Questions have been sent to the Lands Authority about Buhagiar’s employment and on what grounds it was justified given the serious nature of the crimes with which he was charged.

Troubled Lands

The decision to employ Buhagiar in spite of his alleged involvement in human trafficking is not the only instance in which the Lands Authority has been called out for employing questionable individuals, with its history indicating wider, more systemic problems with corruption.

Former CEO James Piscopo had resigned from the Lands Authority in December 2020 following a Times of Malta report which revealed that police were investigating him on the basis of a claim made by disgraced former chief of staff Keith Schembri.

Schembri had claimed that Piscopo had stashed €600,000 in kickbacks for road projects at Fairbairn Private Bank. Prior to his time as CEO of the Lands Authority, Piscopo had served as the CEO of Transport Malta.

Piscopo, who had also served as the Labour Party’s CEO, later went on to work as a consultant. One of his clients was the Zammit Tabona family, the owners of the Fortina Group. Piscopo was already involved in private business with Fortina Group and other influential families even while he was still serving as CEO of Transport Malta.

In November last year, The Shift published an article showing the former “King of Lands,” Clint Scerri, flaunting an expensive sports car on social media. Scerri had served as the liaison point between then-parliamentary secretary for lands, now Family Minister Michael Falzon, and businessman Mark Gaffarena, in what is now known as the Old Mint property scandal from 2015.

After the publication of a damning report by the National Audit Office (NAO), Falzon resigned but he was returned to Cabinet as a minister in 2017 when disgraced former Prime Minister Joseph Muscat reinstated him.

Falzon had also appointed one of his canvassers, Matthew Zammit, as one of the directors of the Lands Authority. Zammit was also forced to resign following suspicions of abuse of power when an extremely cheap lease for a lot of land was awarded to a restaurant in which he was involved.

                           
                               
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Francis Said
Francis Said
18 days ago

A great CV for employment with government and further more a promotion too.
Well done whoever is involved in this corrupt Government of persons of trust.
The Lands Department administers the property of the citizens of Malta and Gozo.
Well it is obvious that the motto of this government is not what you know but WHO you know
WHO not being the World Health Organisation. Ha.

Greed
Greed
18 days ago
Reply to  Francis Said

They need to hire fellow crooks so the continuity can carry on unabated.

Ilona Borg Carbott
Ilona Borg Carbott
17 days ago
Reply to  Francis Said

A slap in the face for all honest citizens

carlo
carlo
17 days ago
Reply to  Francis Said

they can make better EASY money at the lands department. MUR AFDAHHOM|||||

carlo
carlo
17 days ago

and yet, after all these scandals, CORRUPTION RULES THE DAY – and we, the honest taxpayers subsidise their illicit gains. EU please note.

Godfrey Leone Ganado
Godfrey Leone Ganado
17 days ago

When are notorious individuals like these, made to complete an assets declaration return and subjected to a Source of wealth investigation?

Francis Zammit
Francis Zammit
55 minutes ago

Nahseb ahjar immur infittex lill dan l’individwu forsi jirrangali biex nifdi ic-cens ta fejn noqod ghax ilhom jitmelh bijja 20 sena u issa il-file tieghi intilef.X’serjeta Sur Vella & co.

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