A group of businessmen and former aides very close to disgraced former Prime Minister Joseph Muscat are the brains behind his latest bid to regain influence, this time through football, by seeking to become the new MFA president next year.
Investigations into the first stage of Muscat’s plan to unseat current MFA President Bjorn Vassallo in next year’s MFA presidency election showed that the plan involves three main backers with connections to a web of businessmen close to Muscat.
Sharlon Pace, the 42-year-old owner of the Paparazzi restaurant in Gzira and president of the town’s football club, is one of the three club presidents pushing Muscat’s candidacy with the 14 MFA premier clubs. The other two are Gozitan developer Joseph Portelli of Hamrun Spartans and Ranier Bezzina for Hibs. The latter is heavily influenced by his team manager Jesmond Abela, known as ‘Il-Hutch’, a long-standing figure at the Paola club.
Estimated to be a multi-millionaire, with his wealth made mostly on property deals, Pace’s business connections point directly to Muscat’s collaborators.
Pace is a shareholder and director of a large number of different companies. One of his main business associates is Edward Zammit Tabona of the Fortina Group, given a number of multi-million-euro deals during the Muscat administration. These included a concession for part of the Fortina Hotel to be converted into offices, consistent attempts to get a monopoly on the Gozo fast ferry service, a deal on a new international school at the old Mtarfa Hospital, and many other lucrative contracts, including the provision of transport services in the Grand Harbour.
Sharlon Pace and Zammit Tabona own BBF Ltd – the parent company of the former Etvan Hotel in Marsacala which was remodelled into a home for the elderly and given a lucrative PPP contract by the government – and Floors of Stone. The pair also sit on the board of directors of another company, National Insurance Brokers Ltd.
Pace is also a shareholder in a media company, Q Media Ltd, together with unknown investors in ARX Trustees Ltd. Deo Scerri, the former Labour Party auditor, appointed BOV chairman by Joseph Muscat, is a company director, and he is involved in the Gzira United committee along with Pace, while members of his family are in business with the Zammit Tabonas. RSM, the audit firm created by Scerri, is one of Gzira United’s main sponsors.
In 2016, Pace and Zammit Tabona had another business partner in at least two of their joint businesses, BBF and Floors of Stone. This was James Piscopo, the right-hand man and personal campaign leader for Joseph Muscat when he won the leadership of the Labour Party in 2008. Piscopo was later made CEO of the PL.
During the time Piscopo was in business with Pace and Zammit Tabona, he was serving first as chairman of Transport Malta, responsible for transport-related concessions, and later as CEO of the Lands Authority, responsible for concessions of public land and buildings.
Piscopo had claimed that he had forgotten to declare his potential conflict of interest to the Lands Authority’s board and was going to divest himself of his shares in the businesses with Pace and Zammit Tabona.
Last year, soon after he resigned as CEO at the Lands Authority, The Shift revealed that Piscopo was acting as an advisor to the Zammit Tabonas in various business ventures.
Football sources told The Shift that there are very strong business connections between Pace, Zammit Tabona, Piscopo and Scerri, with the common denominator being their close friendship with the disgraced former prime minister.
Sources said that despite the backlash created by Muscat’s attempts to become the president of the MFA, Sharlon Pace and his clique are still pushing for Muscat’s appointment.
The same sources said that Muscat’s attempt is also causing a rift with supporters of Bjorn Vassallo, the current MFA president, who also surrounded himself by Labour Party activists close to Muscat to get elected.
Among his most loyal backers, who are now in two minds about whom to support next year, are Ray Barbara, Muscat’s former private secretary, Luke Dalli, Muscat’s close friend and son of Commissioner Helena Dalli, and Jason Micallef, the chairman of Labour’s ONE TV.
The Shift is also informed that Prime Minister Robert Abela has already made it clear that he does not want Muscat to be given any role and has informally reminded clubs of the government’s role in providing funding, that could become more difficult if they continue with their plans.