Nationalist MP Jason Azzopardi has lost a libel case appeal he filed against Justice Minister Owen Bonnici, with a court saying politicians had to be prepared to face harsh criticism as part of their jobs.
Dr Azzopardi had sued the minister after Dr Bonnici claimed during a press conference in January 2017 that Dr Azzopardi had met with entrepreneur Nazzareno Vassallo and assured him that they would reach a “compromise” for a deal concerning the site of the former Lowenbrau factory in Qormi.
At the time of the alleged promise, Dr Azzopardi was a parliamentary secretary responsible for government property.
The Qormi site had originally had its land use restricted to the “production of alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages”. That clause was removed in 2009, when the government had transferred ownership of the land to LBM Breweries Ltd.
This withdrawal had paved the path for the free transfer of the property in a deal between private companies, worth some €8 million, for which the government had received €240,525 in compensation.
Controversy over the deal had reached parliament and eventually led to the Lands Department insisting that the contract was null due to procedural irregularities.
In May 2011, the Commissioner for Lands filed a judicial letter against LBM [which had since changed its name to Cater Group] requesting it to take steps to rescind the contract.
Eventually, the government and Cater Group Ltd had reached an agreement. Three architects had valued the land at €706,400. Once the 1990 payment to the government was deducted, an additional €240,526.33 was left over and paid into the public purse.
A court had in January dismissed Dr Azzopardi’s libel case against the minister.
On Tuesday, the court of appeal said that it while it was not clear whether Dr Azzopardi and entrepreneur Mr Vassallo had ever met, this did not really matter when the “bigger picture” was taken into account.
There was no doubt that Dr Azzopardi knew about the deal and had consented to it, Mr Justice Anthony Ellul said.
Whatever had taken place between March 7, 2011 [when Dr Azzopardi had issued instructions to his subordinate to take all necessary legal action to revoke the 2009 deed] and June 5, 2012 [when the government and Cater Group Ltd signed off on a ‘compromise’] had happened when Dr Azzopardi was in office.
“Whether he liked it or not, the applicant had to shoulder political responsibility for what had happened under his watch,” the court declared, adding that a person who chose to venture into politics had to be prepared to face criticism, even harsh criticism at times.
It was obvious that the deal, once made public, would spark such criticism, given that Mr Vassallo was a familiar face in PN circles and that the government was to receive less than €250,000 for property worth some €8 million.
The matter would have been very different had it been proved that the dealings had taken place behind Dr Azzopardi’s back, the court went on.
The evidence put forward “gave a totally different picture”, the court said, thereby dismissing the appeal.
Writing on Facebook following the judgement, Dr Azzopardi said that the court had confirmed that the minister had lied about him meeting Mr Vassallo.
Dr Bonnici, on the other hand, wrote that the "prince of good governance and clean politics" had lost his libel case for a second time and that local politics deserved better people than the PN MP.
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