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Hey Gaffarena!

The court decision on the scandalous Mark Gaffarena deal involving half a property in Mint Street, Valletta that was turned into a goldmine, courtesy of the Land Department, has been hailed by the Labour Party as an affirmation of the rule of law in this country. That is unlikely.

That the Prime Minister had to turn to the courts to reverse a decision that gave Mr Gaffarena a profit of hundreds of thousands of euros and parcels of land measuring more than 10 football pitches was the result of a sequence of events extraneous to the rule of law.

The story was broken by The Sunday Times of Malta in 2015 and it has taken three years to reverse that mess. It came hot on the heels of a similar scandal, that of the Café Premier, in Valletta that saw the government pay a €4.2 million bailout soon after coming into office.

In both cases, the ministry responsible was the Office of the Prime Minister. Joseph Muscat artfully stayed out of the Gaffarena scandal, letting then parliamentary secretary Michael Falzon take the flak and eventually fall when the National Audit Office came out with a damning report.

That was not the rule of law at play. That was the collapse of the civil service, with more than a touch of political meddling, that turned the matter into a national scandal. The Prime Minister had no choice but to go to the court to save face. Playing the hero now, for managing to reverse what should not have happened under his own watch, is offensive to level-headed voters.

Dr Falzon, who resigned saying there were people “pleased with their pound of flesh”, always insisted on his innocence in the whole affair. In his ‘resignation’ letter, he referred to “inconsistencies” and “contradictions” in the NAO report. He attacked the Auditor General, his office and his staff, contradicting the Prime Minister’s claims to good governance. Subsequently, after the last election, Dr Falzon was appointed minister. The rule of law had been, after all, a mere hindrance to a style of government that forges ahead unchecked.

The sheer political interference into the whole Gaffarena affair came across clearly in a sworn statement by a former executive at the Land Department in 2016. He said that, during the NAO investigation, he had been under severe pressure from Clint Scerri, a liaison officer with the Land Department appointed on a position of trust basis by Dr Falzon.

“This is why I didn’t say everything, as I felt threatened,” he said, adding that Mr Scerri used to speak in Dr Falzon’s name and tell him which parcels of land were to be given to Mr Gaffarena in exchange for his property in Mint Street.

The former parliamentary secretary denied any wrongdoing but it was he who appointed Mr Scerri “on trust” and he could not deny that.

The institutional collapse at the Land Department eventually led the way to the creation of the Land Authority. There was much pomp but it has not translated into anything much yet. The authority recently called a ‘public consultation’ on the development of land in Mosta but that turned out to be a bureaucratic exercise, nothing more, as this newspaper found out.

The deficiency of the public service is much to blame for the country’s institutional collapse.

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