Government officials and planning board members who approved the controversial Mistra development have told police investigating the case that Nationalist MP Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando had urged them to "keep an eye" on and facilitate the application process.

In a police statement seen by The Sunday Times, Dr Pullicino Orlando is said to have started calling about the application a few months before it was approved, on behalf of someone called Dominic.

This individual has now been identified as the man to whom Dr Pullicino Orlando was leasing the land in question and who in turn rented the land to Ian Sultana, who filed the application for the development.

The dentist, who had won favour among the PN's top echelons for his standing within the environmental lobby, became embroiled in an explosive controversy during the election campaign after Labour revealed that a discotheque was likely to be developed on ecologically sensitive land that belonged to him.

When asked by the police, the person who made the statement said he was unaware at the time that the land actually belonged to Dr Pullicino Orlando and thought he was simply representing a constituent.

This version of events contradicts the claim made by Dr Pullicino Orlando that he had not been involved in any way and that he was not aware of the details of the case.

The statements not only suggest that he knew the case well but that he had pursued the matter directly with the Mepa board - the same board that resigned recently after being lambasted by the audit officer for issuing the supermarket permit in Safi - which approved the outline permit against the expressed recommendation of the case officer.

When contacted yesterday Dr Pullicino Orlando insisted that he had done nothing wrong. He did not confirm or deny the information in the statements, saying that "he had made any comments he had to make on this case".

"I assure you that I did nothing wrong, rest assured," he continued. When pressed to confirm or deny what had been said in the statements about him, Dr Pullicino Orlando said he did not want the situation to spill into the press because it would be unfair on him.

"I'll say it again, you'll see, when we have the outcome... that I never did anything wrong. Had I done something wrong I wouldn't have chased Alfred Sant and challenged him to face me with his accusations. I'm not mad."

Perceived as one of the most promising candidates, Dr Pullicino Orlando was excluded from the new Cabinet appointed by Lawrence Gonzi, who said last Tuesday that he did not want to have a minister under investigation. Dr Pullicino Orlando said he understood the Prime Minister's position.

One of the people who made a statement to the police and who spoke on condition of anonymity said the phone calls and messages from the MP started at the end of the summer and carried on "incessantly" over a number of months, until about October, just before the board approved the development. The outline permit paved the way for the full development application - which has now been retracted - for an open air discotheque over some 2,000m2 of land, which is a candidate Natura 2000 site on account of its ecological sensitivity.

In Mepa's Development Planning Application report on the case, the authority's executive committee is said to have directed the board processing the case to consider that the area is "outside development zone and (that) the project is not justified in such an area".

Similarly, the case officer recommended refusal on the basis of the area's ecological value and the fact that there was "no justification for the development as required by the Structure Plan".

The turning point in the way the application was approved, and this is something which is being probed by the police investigation, appears to have been the favourable recommendations given by the Malta Tourism Authority and the idea that the project fitted into a strategic plan which the authority was developing for the entire area.

mmicallef@timesofmalta.com

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