Updated 2.40pm, adds video
Abela Advocates, the law firm run by Prime Minister Robert Abela and his wife up until his appointment in January, will no longer be selling Maltese citizenship as part of the controversial cash-for-passports scheme, the Office of the Prime Minister has said.
In replies to Times of Malta’s questions, a spokesman confirmed that the law firm “will not be an agent for the Individual Investor Programme (IIP)”.
The spokesman did not say when the firm stopped serving as an agent. Questions on the matter sent to OPM and the IIP regulator have not yet been answered.
Dr Abela has repeatedly stated, even before taking office, that he had no plans to either suspend or scrap the scheme and that he will only be making due diligences changes if believes these are necessary.
His wife Lydia, also a lawyer, had been listed as an IIP agent but dropped this licence once her husband became prime minister.
“The Prime Minister will continue to take all the necessary decisions about this programme, in the best interests of our country. There exists no conflict of interest,” the spokesman said.
PM says his firm stopped selling passports on January 16
Prime Minister Robert Abela told Times of Malta later that he believed his law firm stopped serving as an IIP agent on January 16, three days after he was sworn in.
“I can’t really recall but I believe it was the 16th. But what we must keep in mind is that thanks to the IIP there are over 20 housing projects underway" he said during a tour of social housing.
The OPM clarified later it was actually the 13th and not the 16th.
“Let’s not try and destroy social housing, for which the IIP was a main contributor.”
When pressed to say whether he believed it was appropriate that the law firm still served as an agent for some days after he became prime minister, Dr Abela said he did not think there was “anything inappropriate”.
“We did that to ensure that we observe the highest ethical standards and so that nobody can say there is a conflict of interest.
“However, I will still continue to defend the programme that brought so much wealth to the country,” he said.
Scheme raised €271.6 million in last financial year
According to the latest annual report, the cash-for-passports scheme raised €271.6 million in the last financial year, which equated to 2.11 per cent of the country’s wealth (GDP).
However, sales have dropped persistently. The regulator, Carmel De Gabriele, blamed the fall partly on bad publicity.
The scheme has repeatedly come under the spotlight, with an EU Parliament delegation describing it as risking "importing criminals and money laundering into the whole EU".
During the campaign for the Labour Party’s leadership in December, Dr Abela had initially said that his wife had every right to retain and bid for government contracts, even if he became prime minister.
He then backtracked and said that his law firm would not seek government contracts.
For years, Abela Advocates had pocketed thousands of euros through government contracts from various entities, including the Planning Authority and Transport Malta.