Testimony given by minister Ian Borg in a libel case about him buying a plot of land in Rabat from a man with mental health issues at a price below market value lacked “credibility”, a magistrate’s court has concluded.
The libel suit revolved around a story published by The Malta Independent on Sunday, back in July 2015, titled ‘Family incensed as PS buys land from mentally-ill father’.
In it, the news outlet reported that 66-year old Anthony Scicluna, a vulnerable person afflicted by mental health issues, had sold the property to Borg after a weekend-long drinking spree.
Scicluna had reportedly sold the plot of 655 square metres of land in the Santa Katerina valley area for €10,000, and his relatives claimed the sale had been “rushed through” just hours after Scicluna was allegedly taken bar-hopping across Rabat and Dingli by his nephew, Mark Farrugia and another man, Franco Sammut.
The man had allegedly returned home in the very early hours of Monday morning, showered, changed his clothes and been accompanied straight to a notary’s office to sign the final deed of sale.
Relatives claimed that this was all part of “diabolical plan to exploit Scicluna’s vulnerability” and get him to sell the land to Borg, who at the time was a parliamentary secretary and who had acquired another parcel of land nearby.
The Malta Independent on Sunday had reported the relatives’ claims, as well as Borg’s, owns comments, in which he rebutted the allegations.
However, one of the brokers of the deal who was acting on behalf of Borg had subsequently filed a libel suit against the news outlet.
In the course of proceedings, Scicluna’s wife and children testified, explaining how their relative had battled serious mental issues for the past 25 years and that drinking aggravated his condition.
The man’s psychiatrist had also testified, confirming Scicluna’s state of health and also that he had confessed that he had never intended to sell the Santa Katerina land.
Scicluna was, in fact, interdicted in 2016, one year after the land sale.
Farrugia categorically denied the allegations that he had gone drinking with his uncle for some “fraudulent or abusive” motive.
Borg himself also testified, stating that he had known Scicluna, a cheerful character, for some 18 years and saw no reason to doubt the man’s mental capacity, given that he had signed some other six contracts prior to the one in question.
On the basis of all evidence put forward, the court, presided over by magistrate Victor George Axiak, observed that it had not been proved that Farrugia had actually accompanied his uncle on the round of bars the weekend before the sale.
Nor was it proved that the two middlemen had called for Scicluna on that Monday morning to take him to the Notary.
But, taken within the general context, it was clear that the story focused on Ian Borg, rather than the brokers’ role in the whole affair.
The protagonist of the story was the parliamentary secretary who had allegedly “masterminded the strategy,” said the court, adding that that was what a reasonable reader of ordinary intelligence would infer.
The court went on to declare that it found both Borg’s and Farrugia’s testimony as “lacking credibility,” finding it hard to believe how residents in a small village like Dingli, claimed not to be aware of the seller’s mental issues.
The court also questioned the “illogical” manner whereby Borg, the two brokers as well as the notary, had managed to wrap up the final deed of sale “within 24 hours,” even after the notary testified that notarial searches had been dispensed with since he possessed the root of title on that particular plot.
Even if, in the best hypothesis, there had been no plan to force Scicluna into the sale, yet both Farrugia and Borg were aware that Scicluna was a vulnerable man who had suddenly changed his mind about parting with his property, at a price that was below market value, the court said.
Thus it was binding upon them to ensure that the seller sought professional advice before taking such a step, declared the court, concluding that such a story merited “public scrutiny” and was a matter of public interest.
The libel claim against the Malta Independent was thus thrown out.
Lawyer Peter Fenech assisted the respondents.
PN: Prime Minister should have explained
The Nationalist Party in a statement said that in a normal country, the prime minister would have given a statement in view of the court's dim view of Ian Borg's testimony.
Robert Abela's silence continued to confirm the view that every yardstick of honesty and credibility had been lost by the government and the country's reputation was continuing to suffer.
Ian Borg had declared he was not prepared to resign after such a serious development, and the prime minister's silence showed he had lost control over his ministers, the PN said.