The Malta Independent 16 May 2022, Monday

Government refusing to answer questions on Casino di Venezia ‘site repossession’

Neil Camilleri Sunday, 5 February 2017, 11:00 Last update: about 6 years ago

Questions sent to Deborah Schembri in September remain unanswered

The Parliamentary Secretariat for Lands Deborah Schembri (below) is refusing to answer questions sent by this newspaper on the subject of the Casino di Venezia in Vittoriosa and has ignored several emails, SMS messages and telephone calls made over the past four months.

The Malta Independent on Sunday wanted to find out what stage government efforts to recoup the public property, started last year as a result of unpaid ground rent, had reached. But what was expected to be a straightforward reply from the government is being treated as if it is the state’s biggest and most dangerous secret.

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Casino di Venezia closed down in 2013 after incurring substantial losses over a number of years and a 2012 heist which saw robbers escape with €500,000 in cash.

In May 2015, the government said it had launched court proceedings for the repossession of three sites in Vittoriosa – the site of the Casino Di Venezia, a site of 2,500 square metres and the site known as The Residence of the Palace of the Captain of the Galleys’ Squadron.

In 1999 the three sites had been granted to Port Cottonera Ltd on a 99-year emphyteusis. The company was bound to pay an annual ground rent of €582,000 after a four-year rebate. The amount was to increase by 15 per cent every 10 years and the government retained the right to terminate the contract if the company failed to pay rent for two years.

Over the years, a number of other companies became involved in the sub-leasing of properties and agreements over who was to pay what in respect of ground rent.

In its court application in 2015, the government said that more than two ground rent payments were due for the three sites.

Construction of a hotel on one of the sites started some years ago but the work came to a halt for unknown reasons. Then, some months ago, this newspaper was told that work was underway again.

This newspaper wanted to find out why the developers were resuming work when the government was supposedly trying to recover the sites.

A visit to the site revealed that no work is being carried out. This newspaper also spoke to one of the applicants, who confirmed that work on the hotel had never been resumed. The individual said he was not in a position to speak about the government’s efforts to reclaim the sites but said there was potential interest on the part of foreign investors.

This led to the question of whether the government had halted the legal proceedings until an investor had been roped in – someone who would pay the backdated ground rent and develop the site.

Questions were first sent to Parliamentary Secretary Deborah Schembri, and her communications coordinator Rosianne Cutajar (above), on 29 September 2016.

Neither Dr Schembri nor Ms Cutajar, who is also the PL Mayor of Qormi, replied to our emails.

A reminder was sent on 3 October and again on 10 October, with Ms Cutajar telling us on the same day that the information was still being gathered and that Dr Schembri was out of her office due to health reasons.

Another reminder was sent to Ms Cutajar on 1 November. When that did not work, we sent another email reminder to Dr Schembri on 15 November. The PS did not reply.

On 9 January the author of this report spoke directly to Dr Schembri on the phone. The Parliamentary Secretary said she was not aware of the questions and asked us to send them in writing to her directly. We complied and sent her an email within a few minutes.

On 12 January we sent Dr Schembri another email reminder. The following day, we sent her an SMS text. She replied to none of these.

On 18 January the journalist spoke to Kurt Farrugia, the Government’s Head of Communications, via WhatsApp. Mr Farrugia read the message but did not reply.

This newspaper cannot understand why the government is refusing to answer what are essentially very simple questions: what stage have government efforts to take back the three properties reached? What does it plan on doing with them once it repossesses them? And what is the amount owed in backdated ground rent?

It seems this newspaper is not alone in being denied answers. Vittoriosa Mayor John Boxall told The Malta Independent on Sunday that the Local Council has been left in the dark about the supposed repossession process.

 

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