Ghost contract at Planning Authority

10 May 2020

Update on 15 May 2020: Following our complaint to the National Audit Office, it has decided to proceed with an audit on this particular issue.

Crucial information on a direct order by the Planning Authority has been lost, either deliberately or accidentally, leading the Information and Data Protection Commissioner to express its “serious concerns” in a formal decision notice, on a complaint filed by The Daphne Caruana Galizia Foundation under the Freedom of Information Act.

The initial Freedom of Information request concerned the engagement of Nicholas Wright, who is known to have acted for Joseph Muscat in his 2013 and 2017 electoral campaigns. In December 2013, following the issue of the direct order by the Planning Authority, Sentio, a company through which Wright provided services, was sold to Luntz Global Partners and Wright became an employee of the firm, according to his own LinkedIn profile.

The sequence of events is as follows.

On 26 February 2018, Ian Borg, the Minister responsible for the Planning Authority replied to Parliamentary Question 4207 to the effect that, among other things, the Planning Authority had engaged Nicholas Wright by direct order to provide consultancy services. The direct order was awarded on 23 November 2013 and was stated as being for €39,000 per year, excluding VAT, over three years.

In August 2019, The Daphne Caruana Galizia Foundation submitted a freedom of information request to the Planning Authority requesting its correspondence with Wright, contracts or engagement letters with him, internal correspondence and minutes of internal meetings regarding his appointment, invoices he issued to the Authority, and any documents related to work he did in connection with the direct order issued to him.

In response to the FOI request, the Planning Authority supplied two invoices for €9,750 issued by Wright. The Foundation challenged the response, noting that most of the documentation requested, including the contract with Wright, was missing. The Authority responded with a declaration signed by the then Executive Chairman, Johann Buttigieg, that the “requested additional information cannot be provided as it could not be found.”

The Foundation submitted a formal complaint to the Information and Data Protection Commissioner. The IDPC, with its “limited powers” of investigation, could neither prove nor disprove whether the missing documents were deliberately or accidentally destroyed. It concluded that while the PA followed the letter of the law in its handling of the FOI request, the IDPC is “not satisfied” with the way records are kept by the Planning Authority, that the facts of the case are “indeed worrying” and that it “does not augur well for accountability and transparency”.

An independent data protection lawyer, asked by the Foundation to examine the IDPC decision, said:

“The IDPC doesn’t have the sort of powers that the police do, in the sense that the IDPC alone can’t order a complete forensic search of the Planning Authority’s servers in order to get to the bottom of it, but requires the assistance of the Police Commissioner. The FOI law is based on the fundamental premise that documents are effectively kept and filed. It’s only on that basis that the IDPC can exercise its function. If that principle flies out of the window — as in this case — the IDPC is effectively emasculated.”

Given Wright’s involvement in the 2013 and 2017 electoral campaigns, the non-availability of documentation raises serious questions about the nature and purpose of his engagement by the Planning Authority, and about the reasons for the absence of documentation covering the use of public funds to engage his services.

For a direct order of a significant value to an electoral campaign worker of Joseph Muscat’s, there is evidence that the contractor was paid but no evidence that any work was done. This raises suspicion that a public appointment was used to embezzle funds in return for services to a political campaign. For this reason, the Foundation has now filed a formal complaint with the National Audit Office, saying in its letter to the Auditor General, “Much like the Auditor General cannot fulfil its functions if essential records are not properly kept, the Freedom of Information Act is dead-letter law if information and documents ‘cannot be found’.”

The following documents are being released along with this statement:

  1. the IDPC decision notice;
  2. invoices of 27 November 2013 and 16 December 2013;
  3. the ministerial approval for the direct order;
  4. the request for approval for the direct order (originally supplied as an unsigned Word document).

Note: Although the invoices carry the logos of Sentio and another of Wright’s companies, W & W, the company number on the invoices belongs to Bloom Research Ltd, a company owned by property developer Jan Spiteri and former MISCO researcher Alida Buttigieg. The company was commissioned by an unknown party to survey Marsascala residents in relation to the proposed construction of the American University of Malta, according to a MaltaToday report.