Prime Minister Robert Abela roped in his father, former President George Abela, to lead negotiations with Steward Health Care for a new concession for the state hospitals, according to sources close to the talks that have come forward.
Despite public declarations to the contrary by Prime Minister Abela and Deputy Prime Minister Chris Fearne, Abela spent over a year and a half – between January 2020 and August 2021 – trying to renegotiate the deal struck by his predecessor, disgraced former prime minister Joseph Muscat.
Abela had only been stopped at the eleventh hour by the State Advocate and the Director of Contracts, who advised him that what he was about to sign was illegal, according to the report by the Auditor General.
Sources who were close to the negotiations have confirmed with The Shift that while Abela himself took part in key meetings, he had also anointed his father to coordinate the negotiations between government ministries and Steward.
Abela senior attended a crucial meeting held at the Office of the Prime Minister on 27 August 2020, at which the new terms were discussed and agreed.
George Abela had led the government’s negotiating team that morning.
Present were also the prime minister’s personal assistant Ian Borg, Steward CEO Armin Ernst and his legal representation from the Camilleri Preziosi firm, Ron Galea Cavallazzi, and other key government officials.
George Abela informed the Steward side at that meeting that his son had decided to go ahead with a new concession agreement on totally new terms as opposed to the “legacy” terms that the prime minister is now claiming were the subject of discussions.
George Abela explained that the new concession would include two agreements.
The first was a Design and Build contract for the new renovation/rebuilding of the health facilities at the three hospitals.
The second was a separate Management Services Agreement to see the government handing hundreds of millions of euros to Steward.
The Shift is also aware that following that key meeting, another was held the same afternoon at Castille, during which the high-level points of a new Management Services Agreement were ironed out.
During that meeting, Health Minister Chris Fearne led the government’s negotiating team, while Ernst represented Steward. Gordon Cordina, now Bank of Valletta chairman, also attended the meeting.
Lawyers were then instructed to begin drafting the new agreements’ terms.
Subsequent discussions leading to a draft final new concession took place over the following weeks at all government levels. Most of these were led by then Finance Ministry Permanent Secretary Alfred Camilleri and Steward CEO Armin Ernst.
Ministers Fearne, Finance Minister Clyde Caruana, the Health Ministry’s Permanent Secretary, the Director of Contracts and various lawyers were all involved and kept Robert Abela abreast of the progress of negotiations.
PM downplays father’s role in talks
Asked to confirm that he appointed his father to a key negotiating role, the prime minister’s office acknowledged as much but tried to downplay his involvement.
“Dr George Abela did not coordinate any meetings and was only present for some initial meetings, which other officials also attended,” the Office of the Prime Minister told The Shift.
It also underlined that George Abela was not paid for his involvement in the meetings.
Abela’s office did not reply when asked why the prime minister previously denied he had tried to negotiate a new concession with Steward.
Key officials present during the negotiations who contacted The Shift described the prime minister’s and Minister Fearne’s declarations after the court ruling as “blatant lies”.
In January 2020, shortly after Abela was made prime minister, a meeting was held at Castille in which Joseph Muscat introduced Steward and its CEO Armin Ernst to Robert Abela. The possibility of striking a new deal was discussed at that meeting, The Shift is informed.
“Abela, Fearne and civil servants from all major ministries were vital in pushing forward talks with Steward to renegotiate the concession terms. They came up with these new terms themselves rather than them being a legacy from the Muscat administration,” one official who spoke to The Shift confirmed.