PN MP Jason Azzopardi today was stopped from reading out his declaration about the expropriation of land at Fekruna Bay, Xemxija as sparks flew between members of the government and members of the Opposition during a Public Accounts Committee (PAC) meeting.
The decision on whether Azzopardi would be allowed to orally present his declaration, which was submitted under oath and in writing to the committee, will fall to the Speaker to decide in a ruling.
The meeting was meant to be focused on a pre-2013 land expropriation case relating to Fekruna Bay. According to a report released by the National Audit Office on the land transfer, on March 5, 2013, just days before a general election, the Lands Department had signed a contract transferring two properties (one in Swieqi, the other in San Ġwann) worth €4.3 million jointly as payment for land expropriated at Fekruna Bay, Xemxija.
The Fekruna land was valued at €5 million and the difference in favour of Fekruna Ltd, amounting to €700,000, was offset against amounts due to the government by the company in lieu of capital gains tax and duty on documents. The report found that taxpayers had lost more than €1 million through the deal.
Azzopardi, who was back then a parliamentary secretary within the Nationalist government, had been called as a witness in the case by the government.
However when he came to read out his declaration, government MPs on the committee cried foul saying that there was no such need as they knew how to read and could read the declaration in their own time. They, with MP Robert Abela leading the point, preferred to not “waste time” and move straight to asking questions to Azzopardi.
This suggestion was greeted with derision by both the committee’s chairperson Beppe Fenech Adami and PN MP Chris Said. Fenech Adami said that not allowing Azzopardi to present his declaration orally was tantamount to discrimination as other witnesses in the past had been given the facility to conduct such an oral presentation if they saw fit. Abela meanwhile argued that it was, according to the PAC’s guidelines, at the discretion of the committee as to whether the witness, in this case Azzopardi, should be allowed to make such a presentation.
The Labour MP demanded that a vote on the matter be taken by the committee; however this suggestion was rejected by Fenech Adami who said that he would instead demand a ruling by the Speaker.
The committee is made up of seven members; Labour MPs Julia Farrugia Portelli, Robert Abela, Alex Muscat and Clayton Bartolo, and PN MPs Beppe Fenech Adami – who is the committee’s chairperson – , Chris Said and Kristy Debono.
A visibly agitated Chris Said accused the government of not wanting to hear Azzopardi’s statement, saying that its contents were a source of bother for the government. Farrugia Portelli in turn accused Said of having read the declaration beforehand, an implication which Said vehemently denied, saying instead that he had read it while the meeting itself was ongoing.
Two separate requests for a ruling were presented, one by Fenech Adami and the other by Abela, wherein the former asked the Speaker whether Azzopardi should be allowed the same treatment as had been afforded to other witnesses in the past, and the latter asked the Speaker whether the committee’s guidelines should be “ignored” in favour of another procedures based on the premise that this is what had been done before.
A ruling from October 2010 taken by then-Speaker Michael Frendo was brought to light; however this did not aid the solving of the impasse with both sides saying that Frendo’s ruling backed up their own point.
Frendo in 2010 had ruled that the chairman of the PAC should keep to “established practices” when running the committee.
As a result of the deadlock, the meeting was postponed until the Speaker’s ruling.
Original article found on The Malta Independent