The Jacob Borg piece in Times of Malta (January 31) headed ‘Robert Abela’s PA retainer doubled to €17,000 a month over six years’ attracted a storm of comment – the thread closed at 281 comments – most of it hostile.

The PL trolls put up a rather feeble response. But there was also a response from Prime Minister Robert Abela himself: a tale of long hours of work spilling over into Saturdays and even Sundays.

A spokesman for the prime minister added further details: a spike in the demand for legal services by the Planning Authority (PA) because of the steep rise in planning applications, was one.

But there was another explanation put out by the PM’s spokesman which is of particular interest. As quoted in Times of Malta: “The assistance to the authority before the Environment and Planning Review Tribunal (EPRT) started being provided by Abela Associates after the PA’s in-house lawyer, who used to handle these cases, resigned from the authority.”

Now, sometime in late 2018, I happened to attend an EPRT session in which the tribunal was hearing objections to the db Group San Ġorġ-ITS proposal for a hotel and apartment block at Pembroke.

The main characters in this (second) session on that subject were: Martin Saliba, as EPRT chair, Ian Stafrace, for the db Group, Claire Bonello, for the Pembroke council, some residents and a group of NGOs.  At a side table sat Robert Abela, now known to have been acting as “legal adviser” to the PA at that time. 

To start off the session, Bonello said she had a second objection concerning persons involved in the db Group application and in the PA vote approving it.

The first, put forward in the first EPRT session on this subject, had concerned a member of the PA who had voted in the meeting which had approved the db proposal. This person, then connected to a well-known real estate company, had been advertising apartments in the projected San Ġorġ-ITS block: a clear case of conflict of interest.

The ‘legal adviser’ to the PA just stood by and watched Saliba airily dismiss what the ‘legal adviser’ must have known to be an illegality

The second objection concerned a person who had contributed to the project EIA while engaged in work for db: a situation forbidden by the existing EIA rules.

Bonello was quickly cut off. At the mention of a second objection, chair Saliba stood up to deliver a tirade against people wasting EPRT time with “petty objections”. He was certainly not going to allow any more of this.

And as his spluttering fizzled out, up jumped db lawyer Stafrace with a display of anger worthy of a posse of assassins charging a crusader under the influence of the ‘Herb’ – anger directed against the objectors, of course.

I confess to a sudden fear of Stafrace having a stroke, going by the volume of the tirade and the colour of his face. But a glance at Abela showed a broad grin on his face, which could only suggest approval of these verbal assaults. At which point the objectors called a halt to the proceedings and we all trooped out.

The case was taken to the Appeals Court, where Mr – now Chief – Justice Mark Chetcuti delivered judgment in a short session. He treated just the first of the objections presented, on grounds that all the others would only merit treatment if the first one was rejected. And the first objection claimed that in the PA vote on the db Group’s San Ġorġ-ITS proposal, Matthew Pace had had a glaring conflict of interest.

The Appeals Court upheld that objection and so the PA vote was declared null and void.

The Times of Malta piece, in making clear the reason for the presence of Abela at that EPRT session, has raised far more serious questions than the size of his fees.

Take the NGO objection related to the Pace vote: it was obvious that a PA vote on a proposal by a person already involved in advertising apartments in the “development” under discussion constituted a clear conflict of interest. Yet, the “legal adviser” to the PA just stood by and watched Saliba airily dismiss what the “legal adviser” must have known to be an illegality.

That is much more serious than taking an over-handsome remuneration. It is collusion in an illegal act.

There was another matter in this EPRT session, one not known to the objectors at the time but certainly known to the EPRT chair and the PA’s “legal adviser” Abela.

That was the fact that Saliba was on the payroll of the PA and, as such, should have been excluded from chairing EPRT sessions treating objections to PA decisions. Again, the PA “legal adviser” was silent on this: collusion in another illegality at the very least.

Of course, when Abela became prime minister, he did not forget old friends. So, when Saliba’s time as EPRT chair was up, he was translated to CEO of the PA, which is when the PA source of his salary as EPRT chair was revealed.

Neither Saliba nor his former “legal adviser”, now prime minister Abela, accepted that there had been anything illegal in this situation. Despite this, the current EPRT chair, now known to be in the PA’s pay, has had to recuse himself when challenged by objectors.

That looks like a clear admission that, back in 2018, Saliba and the PA’s “legal adviser” Abela were colluding in what they knew was an illegal situation.

Where does that leave Abela now?

This is not just a case of pocketing a debatably over-generous remuneration. It is a case of collusion in illegal acts.

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