The Malta Independent 15 October 2021, Friday

Joseph K - How Labour swindles its people

Kevin Cassar Sunday, 10 October 2021, 09:30 Last update: about 5 days ago

 

Joseph K is the protagonist in Franz Kafka’s famous novel, The Trial. “One fine morning” he is arrested by two wardens although he has done nothing wrong. The Trial chronicles the bizarre and absurd struggles of Joseph K, desperately attempting to discover what he is being accused of - without success. Despite his outrage and indignation he is ultimately consumed by the relentless circuitous bureaucracy of the state. Josef K is finally executed still not knowing what crime he committed. By the end Joseph K is no longer outraged. The state rendered him helplessly co-operative with its horrific injustice. Kafka’s novel is eerily prescient of the weaponry used by insidious totalitarian states.

Joseph K is the protagonist in Malta’s own re-enactment of Kafka’s disturbing novel. Joseph K is the two-headed hydra of Joseph (Muscat) and (special) K, Keith Schembri. Together they spun a real-life drama of truly Kafkaesque proportions.

In 2012, Marsamxetto Steamferry Services Ltd won an 8 year contract to provide ferry services between Sliema and Valletta, and Valletta and Vittoriosa. That contract was due to expire in 2020. Supreme Travel Ltd had competed for the original contract and lost, spending the following 8 years preparing to launch another bid once the contract expired.

But the CEO of Marsamxetto Steamferry Services Ltd was none other than Edward Zammit Tabona - who was also CEO of Fortina Investments Ltd, business partner of James Piscopo, previously Labour Party CEO, Transport Malta CEO and Lands authority CEO - now advisor to the very same Zammit Tabonas and subject to police investigation.  Zammit Tabona’s Fortina portfolio also includes Captain Morgan Holdings, recipient of generous contracts by Robert Abela to hold irregular migrants offshore in inhumane conditions for weeks. Captain Morgan and the Zammit Tabonas were singled out for praise when the Naxxar Labour committee donated over €100,000 to the Labour Party in June 2020.

So when the ferry services contract expired in 2020, Labour had every interest to accommodate the Zammit Tabonas. And devised the most Kafkaesque way of doing so. It simply remained silent and renewed the contract in secret. No announcement, no press conference, no notification - only dead silence. Nobody knew the contract worth millions of euro had been renewed.  Supreme Travel, Zammit Tabona’s competitor, was left anxiously waiting for its opportunity.

When Supreme Travel enquired with Transport Malta about when a call for tender would be issued it received no reply. When the company insisted, “we were told that the government decided to renew the contract to the same operators without issuing a tender”. Not only did the government renew the contract for another three years but “the 3-year extension would only commence once passenger numbers returned to pre- Covid figures”. This meant that Zammit Tabona would decide when pre-Covid figures had been reached and the extension would go well beyond the three years as the timeframe would be flexible and determined by Labour’s donor.

Zammit Tabona had actually asked for the extension of the contract in 2017, well before Covid, claiming that his company had not made enough money out of the deal. And guess who Zammit Tabona wrote to for the “favour” to be granted? Yes, Transport Malta CEO James Piscopo. So it came as no surprise that Labour’s donors were rewarded.  In order to ensure that there could not be any competition for the contract, no tender was issued and the extension was awarded in total secrecy.

In December 2020 an answer by Transport Minister Ian Borg to a parliamentary question revealed, almost 9 months late, that the concession had been extended. Supreme Travel’s Kafkaesque journey was just about to start.  They filed a letter of objection before the Public Contracts Review board, challenging that extension.

Several months later, on 1 June, the Board dismissed the challenge. The grounds for its refusal were that Supreme Travel should have submitted its challenge within 6 months of the contract extension, that is by September 2020. But of course nobody knew the contract had been extended. It was only inadvertently in that December Parliamentary session that the information leaked out. So how could Supreme Travel submit its challenge about an extension of a contract that Labour had cunningly kept secret?

Thankfully Joseph R came to the rescue. The Court of Appeal presided by Chief Justice Mark Chetcuti, and Mr Justices Joseph R Micallef and Tonio Mallia concluded that “in the interest of rectitude and justice”, the term for filing an objection was to commence from the time when an interested party could get to know about the contract.

The court was understandably outraged at the circuitous and devious absurdity of Labour’s naked injustice. “It was difficult to claim that the term commenced from the date of the contract that was kept under wraps”, the Court declared. The relative EU directive called for such public concessions to be made public.  Labour had not only committed a grave injustice to appease its donor but broken the law. Transport Malta was obliged to notify the public of the extension. Labour could hardly publish a notification stating that “we’re extending Zammit Tabona’s contract because he’s pumping money into Labour’s coffers” on the Official EU Journal. The court noted that it was only because Supreme Travel kept an eye on the situation that the extension came to light.

The court delivered Supreme Travel out of its Kafkaesque nightmare. It revoked the bizarre and absurd decision of the Public Contracts Review Board. And in a truly Kafkaesque turn of events, the expenses relating to the appeal would be borne by the Transport Ministry.  In short, Abela’s government breaks the law, undermines fairness, cons the public - and the public pays the price, literally. Our taxes fund Labour’s illegal, unjust protectionist schemes to fund its own party to retain power - and continue to cheat the public and defraud it of more of its wealth.

 

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