Prime Minister Robert Abela has refused to explain a €180,000 discrepancy in his personal wealth declarations presented to parliament as required under the Ministerial Code of Ethics.
Research conducted by The Shift shows that his new acquisition of a plot of land in Xewkija in 2022 is nowhere to be seen in his declarations, as is the €180,000 payment his contract shows he made.
In his 2021 declaration, Abela told parliament he had some €375,000 in cash deposited in local banks.
A year later, in his 2022 declaration, his bank account deposits increased by some €12,000, ending the year with €387,000 in bank deposits, plus another €20,000 in new Malta government stocks.
However, the €180,000 he paid for the acquisition of a new plot in Xewkija, Gozo, through a contract signed in April 2022, is not reflected in his declarations.
Yet instead of a significant decrease in his bank account deposits reflecting the €180,000 spent, his deposits in his bank accounts increased, despite the prime minister declaring his salary, circa €65,000, as his family’s only source of income.
Furthermore, the declarations show that Abela did not sell any property in 2021 to fund the 2022 purchase.
Additionally, his 2022 declaration, the last one publicly available, fails to mention the acquisition of more land in April of that year.
The Shift asked Abela how he paid €180,000 for the land in Xewkija – The Shift saw the contract – without it being reflected in his bank balance and which funds he used for the purchase.
The prime minister was also asked whether he paid the price of the Xewkija land in cash, something illegal under Maltese law.
The prime minister told The Shift, “The declaration of assets referred to is complete and correct,” declining to provide further details.
A history of dubious acquisitions and accumulated wealth
Robert Abela, 46, and his wife Lydia, 45, both worked as lawyers for almost two decades as part of the legal office of former President George Abela, the prime minister’s father.
According to their declaration of assets, the couple owns three properties, including a seafront penthouse in Marsaskala and a farmhouse in Xewkija purchased in 2010 from a German couple for €268,000.
Then, in 2017, only five days after a large two-tumuli mansion in Zejtun’s rural outskirts was sanctioned for massive illegalities by the Planning Authority, the Abelas signed a contract acquiring the villa for a declared payment of €600,000.
Though the market value of the villa and its surrounding lands were estimated by real estate agents to be in the region of €2 million, the Income Tax Department felt no need to investigate whether the prime minister had undervalued his acquisition to avoid paying tens of thousands in taxes.
Also, it was later discovered that the couple had rented the dilapidated villa to two Russians seeking to buy a Maltese passport. The rent was €1,500 a month even though the Russians never lived there. Those buying Maltese passports need a residential address to obtain citizenship.
His clients include Gilbert Bonnici the CEO of road builders Bonnici Group, Simon Buhagiar, known as tal-Gass and Christian Borg, currently accused of kidnapping a man and under police investigation over possible drug trafficking.
In January 2023, Robert Abela and his wife also bought another plot of land in Xewkija to quadruple the footprint of their farmhouse, which has now been granted a permit to be turned into a boutique hotel.
This second plot cost the Prime Minister another €135,000.
The declaration of assets for 2023 is yet to be tabled in parliament.
Other undeclared assets
In 2013, soon after Labour’s return to power, the prime minister and his wife paid €3,000 to former Planning Authority chief Ian Stafrace and his wife, Magistrate Claire Zammit Stafrace, to acquire their share in a government-owned flat in Strait Street, Valletta, which they used as their legal office.
The central Valletta property’s temporary emphyteusis ended in 2017, but the prime minister did not return the keys to the Lands Authority, as required. He still possesses this flat even though he has no title.
Last year, the government launched a scheme to allow for the automatic extension of such leases, which would benefit the prime minister.
Abela also owns a luxury yacht, the BALOO III – an Azimut 50 – estimated to cost some €300,000 and with annual maintenance costs of around €30,000 a year (a conservative estimate), including charges for berthing at the Birgu marina and fuel.
The Ministerial Code of Ethics does not require Abela to declare his marine assets.