The government has ordered the board of the Lands Authority, which is an autonomous body, to start concentrating on policy and delegate most of its executive powers to the authority’s CEO.

The authority is in charge of the management of all government property and its functions include the sale and transfer of public land to third parties, some involving six-figure transactions.

The board has been told to refrain from most of its executive functions and retain powers only over policy and exceptional cases, such as expropriations of land and land transfers of a high value.

Times of Malta understands that the CEO – former chief executive of the Labour Party James Piscopo – will now be responsible for many decisions connected with transfers of government property to third parties and permission to build on public land.

He will also pursue court action and administer schemes for redemption of leases.

The decision, taken by the Cabinet, was communicated to the chairman, former judge Lino Farrugia Sacco, by Parliamentary Secretary Chris Agius, who is politically responsible for the powerful authority.

In a letter seen by Times of Malta, the government also indicated that it was not satisfied with the way the board of governors was administering the authority. “It is a fact that the authority needs to work with more vigour and efficiency, without compromising the expected transparency and accountability,” Mr Agius wrote.

A source close to the Lands Authority described this “sudden decision” as the latest episode in the power struggle between the board and the CEO since the arrival of Mr Piscopo.

Judge Farrugia Sacco and Mr Piscopo have been known to clash in the past. E-mails exchanged between the two were published by Times of Malta last year showing that the chairman had contradicted orders issued by Mr Piscopo.

“It seems that this time around, Piscopo is gaining the upper hand,” one authority official said.

Another raised concerns about transparency and accountability in the new situation.

Times of Malta is informed that the board has not yet approved the government’s order.

When contacted, Judge Farrugia Sacco said he did not wish to comment for the time being.

Questions sent to Parliamentary Secretary Agius were not answered by the time of writing.

The authority was set up in 2017 following a major scandal connected to the management of public property involving businessman Mark Gaffarena, the former Lands Department and the responsible ministry.

The then parliamentary secretary (now minister) Michael Falzon resigned over the scandal.

Originally an employee at Air Malta, Mr Piscopo was one of a small team of friends who helped Joseph Muscat become Labour leader in 2008. He was immediately recruited by Dr Muscat as CEO of the party while the post of general secretary was abolished.

In 2013, soon after Labour’s return to power, Mr Piscopo was appointed chairman and CEO of Transport Malta. In 2017, Transport Malta was stripped of its road building function, its most important and well-funded arm, and Mr Piscopo left. A few weeks later he was recruited as CEO of the Lands Authority.

Last year, Times of Malta revealed that Mr Piscopo had failed to flag his personal business interests with some clients of the Lands Authority, the owners of the Fortina Hotel, as he was obliged to.

When he was still serving at Transport Malta, he had opened a private consultancy firm which later invested in BBF Ltd and Floors of Stone Company Ltd, among whose shareholders are the Fortina Hotel owners.

The board was only informed by Mr Piscopo of his business interests after receiving questions by Times of Malta.

He said he was divesting his business interests to avoid potential conflicts of interest and no action was taken against him.

PN to oppose 'change for the worse'

In a reaction, the Nationalist Party said the government had said one thing, and was doing another. It had set up the authority by legislation for greater transparency and justice in the administration of public land, but now it was concentrating powers on CEO James Piscopo.

"This is a u-turn for the worse in the administration of public land," the party said in a statement, adding that it would mean less scrutiny in this sector. 

The party recalled that the setting up the authority had followed major scandals. The authority was meant to stop such scandals, but this was now turning out to be eyewash and the order for the board to hand over powers to the CEO amounted to a vote of no confidence in the board and a return to the scandals of the past.  

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