The Gozo Ministry has denied a Freedom of Information request from The Shift News requesting a copy of the contract between Gozo Channel and its chairman’s client for the lease of a rundown, in dire need of structural work supermarket.
The Gozo Ministry is paying hundreds of thousands of euros to lease the Ta’ Miema supermarket in Mgarr, which belongs to the private audit practice of Gozo Channel chairman Joe Cordina.
In denying The Shift News’ simple FOI request for a copy of all contracts pertaining to the lease, the Gozo Ministry provided a blanket reply under Article 32 of the Act.
The Article includes but is not limited to exemptions to the FOI Act when it comes to trade secrets, commercial sensitivity, if the disclosure of the information would have a substantial adverse effect on the government’s ability to manage the economy or if it would result in an undue disturbance of the ordinary course of business in the community.
The information about the lease, the ministry says in its FOI refusal, was provided in PQ 2168. But in that PQ, tabled by Gozitan opposition MP Chris Said on 3 October, Gozo Minister Clint Camilleri was asked to table a copy of the contract, which he did not do.
In its FOI request, The Shift News similarly asked for “copies of all contracts, including annexes and additions, pertaining to the lease”. But, for some reason, the minister appears reticent to make the contract public by providing it through the FOI Act to The Shift News or by tabling it in Parliament as requested by Chris Said.
In the meantime, the state company is not only paying rent for an unusable property, but it is also paying for the dilapidated property’s structural work to render it safe for employees to temporarily transfer there while the head office in Victoria undergoes a facelift. That element of the plan has also been called into question as it was revealed that Gozo Channel has plenty of other office space at its disposal without needing to resort to leasing a supermarket and fixing it up before employees can move in.
The Shift is informed that the plan is for workers from Gozo Channel’s head office to be transferred to the Ta’ Miema supermarket property while the head office is being refurbished. But, in a twist, the supermarket also needs major work to the tune of €500,000 because of serious structural defects before the employees are able to move there temporarily.
While refusing to publish the full contracts, Minister Camilleri did say in Parliament in reply to Said that the 10-year lease arrangement will see the chairman’s auditing firm clients, A & J Hili Ta’ Miema Ltd, being paid a total of almost €700,000 in rent.
Avoiding any reference to the fact that the property is owned by clients of Cordina’s private auditing firm, the minister confirmed The Shift’s story that the former supermarket was meant to have started being used as offices for Gozo Channel almost three years ago, in January 2020.
The minister said that Gozo Channel has so far paid the chairman’s clients €62,400 a year, or €5,200 a month, for the lease even though the company has never used the property. According to the 10-year deal, which is now already at the end of its third year, the rent will increase by another six per cent as from next year.
Gozo Channel is also supplying an additional €500,000 to fix the property up and it is not yet known when it will be ready for use. In return for the problems with the property, the chairman’s clients will be repaying €111,000 in compensation, which amounts to a further 18 months’ lease.
By the end of the deal’s cycle, the landlords will have received a total of €700,000 in lease payments and an almost brand-new office block fully refurbished at the taxpayers’ expense.