The former aid to the Education Minister had allegedly sought cash awards from Giovann Vella, the contractor who had won the tender for works at the Victoria sixth form extension, a court heard today.
The Gozitan contractor, director of a family-run construction business, this afternoon made the trip to Malta to testify in criminal proceedings against Edward Caruana, currently charged with corruption and fraud while acting as an official of the government’s school-building agency, the Foundation for Tomorrow’s Schools, falsification of documents and bribery.
Before magistrate Donatella Frendo Dimech the witness recalled how, having won the €540,000 tender lawfully, he had been somewhat annoyed by the implication behind Mr Caruana’s words over the phone. “He obviously meant that I owed him something. I don’t owe him anything,” the witness emphatically declared.
Following that telephone conversation, he kept receiving calls with the witness saying that Mr Caruana, the man who he identified in court, had called him not seven but 77 times.
On one occasion, Mr Caruana had told Mr Vella to speak to the contractor who had placed second in the tendering process so that the latter might take over the works at the Victoria sixth form.
At a meeting fixed by Mr Caruana himself, this other contractor had offered Mr Vella €5,000 for the latter to renounce to the tender.
“You don’t stand a chance of being paid because the works are in Dwardu’s hands and he won’t pay you for sure,” the unsuccessful bidder had said. However, Mr Vella had ignored the offer and continued with the project, forking out some €100,000 by way of a pre-financing and a performance guarantee before having even commenced the works.
The witness also recalled a meeting at the Contracts Department during which he was questioned over alleged delays, a fact which Mr Vella strongly denied pointing out that dredging works amounting to some 30% of the whole project were on track. “Someone must have supplied the department wrong information,” the witness observed in court.
One day, Mr Caruana had allegedly called the contractor asking him for €30,000 to facilitate government payments due to Mr Vella on the project. “I’m as powerful as the minister and unless you hand over the money, you won’t receive any payments,” the former aide had demanded, further threatening to “send his men” to seek out Mr Vella.
Following some 15 days of daily phone calls, Mr Caruana had even suggested that he could instruct Robert Ciantar, the project’s quantity surveyor, to inflate measurements and consequently, bills, so that Mr Vella might get his money and move out of the picture, leaving the second-placed bidder to take over, the witness concluded.
Ignoring even this suggestion, Mr Vella proceeded with the job and was once summoned to a meeting at the Contracts Department. Expecting this to be a progress report meeting, the witness recalled how he was stunned when the director of contracts, Tony Cachia, asked “Are you going to renounce to the tender?”
A heated altercation ensued between the contractor and Mr Caruana, also present at the meeting. In the commotion, the latter had allegedly banged on the table and shoved chairs about whilst angrily telling Mr Vella “Don’t you ever talk to me again!” before walking out.
Although the ‘€30,000’ figure was allegedly bandied about on that occasion, none of those present appeared to have grasped the implications, the witness remarked.
As the building works continued, Mr Vella once received a call from a supplier who told him that he could supply cement for the project, thus returning a favour towards Mr Caruana. However, Mr Vella flatly refused, pointing out to the caller that he would only consider the offer if the price was favourable.
Following the aggressive outburst during the meeting at the Contracts Department, in August 2015, shortly before the Santa Marija festivities, Mr Vella once again received a call from Mr Caruana telling him that he intended to pay him a visit during his stay in Gozo.
The witness recalled how Mr Caruana and his wife had been invited to a BBQ at the Vella residence. Walking into the house, the guest had pulled his host aside asking to have a word in private.
Sitting in the salon sipping whisky, the conversation soon turned to the pending issue between the two men. “What about those €30,000?” Mr Caruana had asked. “I haven’t got that money,” Mr Vella had replied.
Wary of his visitor’s formerly aggressive behaviour, Mr Vella was rather surprised when the other man replied “Ok. As you wish.”
After that evening, the building works progressed but no further payments were forthcoming. The witness explained how he had been told by the FTS that they could not issue payments since the quantity surveyor, Robert Ciantar, who worked under instructions of Mr Caruana, was not issuing the relative bills.
A curious incident occurred one day when two contractors, allegedly brothers from Rabat, Malta, had turned up at the sixth form building site to construct a retaining wall under direct order. When Mr Vella had voiced his annoyance about the fact that there were damaging his work, they remarked that they were rendering a favour to Mr Caruana.
“You’d better give him what he wants,” the two had told Mr Vella. “You won’t settle the matter in court. He’s powerful, on close terms with the minister.”
The €30,000 figure had even been brought up by Mr Ciantar when confronted by Mr Vella over the non-issued bills, the witness recalled. Upon hearing this, the contractor had allegedly called the surveyor “thief” which sparked off a physical exchange between the two.
The witness also explained how, after a call from the St Julian’s police station, he had received a summons notifying him of charges for slander against Mr Caruana. “Those proceedings are on hold pending these proceedings,” the somewhat perplexed witness informed the court.
“To date I have not been paid in full for the works done and I have not had any further communication with Mr Caruana,” Mr Vella said.
At the commencement of Wednesday's sitting, the prosecution asked the court to issue a freezing order upon the assets of Mr Caruana, in terms of law.
Inspector Rennie Stivala prosecuted. Lawyers Stefano Filletti and Stephen Tonna Lowell were defence counsel. Lawyer Joe Giglio was counsel to Mr Vella.