Former Lands Minister Jason Azzopardi has said that it was the Government Property Department’s responsibility to inform him about key parts of a Spinola land deal that he was not aware about at the time.

In a sworn deposition before the Public Accounts Committee on Tuesday evening, Dr Azzopardi said that the department had failed to inform him about the court sentence handed down regarding the foreshore at 83, Spinola Road, or that the government was expected to gain only €35 – since revised upwards - from the sale of the property.

A report released by the National Audit Office last July found irregularities in the deal, with circumstances the auditor-general’s office said were “injudicious.”

"When one considers that the property was transferred for €525,000 against the NAO's valuation of €2,400,000, the value for money was certainly not ascertained,” the report stated.

Speaking to the committee prior to Dr Azzopardi on Tuesday evening, the current Lands Authority CEO said the government had received a payment of €294,877.40 including €84,877.40 in interest at an 8 per cent rate the previous day, Monday 8 January. This brought the total received for the land to €609,877.40. Prior to full settlement, a payment had last been made in July 2014.

Quoting from the NAO report, Dr Azzopardi told the parliamentary committee that the burden of accountability rested with officials who did not draw attention to the full facts of the case.

Dr Azzopardi said he had been “angry” to hear of the court case against EG Property Holdings – a fact he first learned while being interviewed by National Audit Office officials as they looked into the deal.

Their report, he said, had identified two separate files, one pertaining to the court case, and one to the property itself, which made no mention of the court case.

Dr Azzopardi said the then-Commissioner for Lands had argued that there was no obligation to inform then-Finance Minister Tonio Fenech or himself [Dr Azzopardi] of the deal, and had also failed to inform the Government Property Division tender committee of the full details of the case.

The GPD tender committee had opted on informal arbitration and the decision was authorised by then-minister Mr Fenech in 2010.

READ: Auditor-general appears before committee

In minutes noting the request to grant such, there was no mention of the condition that any arbitration was to be handled by the MAC - a condition listed in the tender document. Dr Azzopardi claimed that both he and Mr Fenech were at the time unaware of this condition.

He said the NAO itself had stated that he himself, together with Mr Fenech, the tender committee, and the chairperson leading the informal arbitration had been “misled”. He pointed out that he had never overturned any decision or minute made on the subject by the civil service.

'Song and dance with malicious intent'

Dr Azzopardi said a lot of “song and dance” with “malicious intent” had been made of this meeting, but contrary to the impression being given, it was one of a series of weekly meetings about administrative matters for which public officials were exclusively present.

Furthermore, Dr Azzopardi said that he had never met alone with a third party and had never received any communication about the manner except for the minutes included in the GPD file.

€35 'spun' - Azzopardi

He said the €35 figure had been “spun” when in fact the land had been sold for €525,000, with the money going to the Foundation for Church Schools.
Dr Azzopardi said that he was unable to calculate the sum due to the government, as the formula used came from the 1992 church-state agreement was extremely complicated.

When appearing before the committee last October, the
auditor-general had said that while there was no explicit evidence that the minister had been informed of the low figure the government was due if the land was sold instead of leased, he could have worked out the figure based on information in the case file.

Committee member and Labour MP Robert Abela pointed out that the NAO had censured Dr Azzopardi while acknowledging that he had not been adequately informed.

The report noted that Dr Azzopardi should have been aware of the different consequences arising from the disposal of land by temporary emphyteusis or by outright sale. Although both decisions were legal, the report described the path chosen as “injudicious,” and it had ultimately led to less value-for-money for the government.

Dr Azzopardi insisted that the decision to go for outright sale was a collective decision taken by those present at the joint meeting held with the GPD. Both outright sale and temporary emphyteusis had been presented by then-Lands director-general Iman Schembri as viable options.

He dismissed Dr Abela’s reasoning that he could have seen the MAC clause had he read the tender document included in the file, noting that ministers had to process hundreds of files a week and could not be expected to examine all of them thoroughly.

It was up to government officials, he said, to highlight important information. 
Dr Abela responded that the case was a particular one, as it involved the downward revision of the tender price.

That sort of case merited further attention. He also quoted the NAO report, which placed the burden of guilt “to varying degrees” on the GPD officials, on the architects hired by the latter, and on the minister himself.

Dr Azzopardi will continue to be deposed before the Public Accounts Committee next week.

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