NEWS | Sunday, 30 December 2007

The year that was

From resignations to corruption scandals to Maltese saints to beaten French motorists, MaltaToday looks back upon the stories that helped to shape 2007

Mercieca finally moves out
Archbishop Guzeppi Mercieca is finally shown the door by the Vatican last January, after a staggering 30 years heading the Maltese Church. He is replaced by Mgr Pawl Cremona, a Dominican friar, in the wake of some of the most telling statistics to ever face the Maltese Church.
The most recent census had revealed that only 52.6 per cent of the Maltese still attend Sunday mass – 10 per cent less than a decade ago. It might take more than a humble friar from the order of preachers to win back its multitudes of lost sheep in 2007 Malta.
Besides lacking leadership qualities to tackle much needed administrative changes within his curia’s tribunal, Mgr Mercieca was conditioned throughout his 30-year mission by the partisan bipolarity that reached its nadir in the years of his anointment as successor to Archbishop Mikiel Gonzi.
Mgr Mercieca was also facing increased resistance to his prolonged leadership of the Maltese church among fellow prelates. Although he had submitted his resignation more than three years earlier in line with Canon Law, which required him to step down on his 75th birthday, the Vatican kept the Gozitan monsignor on, to the frustration of many disgruntled priests and religious orders who found him intellectually lacking.

Statistics get too hot
Gordon Cordina resigns from the National Statistics Office at the end of January, following unrelenting attacks from the Labour Party. In his resignation letter, Cordina admits that the events that threw the statistics department into political controversy had been too much for him to retain his post and conduct his work with the “necessary serenity”.
A revision of GDP figures right up to 1995, which depressed previous economic performances and bolstered the gross domestic product in the three years since Lawrence Gonzi became prime minister, became the source of controversy when the Labour party called into question Cordina’s and the statistics office’s credibility. He was also attacked by Labour for being “a political animal” – echoing his pro-EU stand prior to the referendum, as well as for his alleged conflict of interest in having a consultancy firm. His resignation however has left NSO bereft of a head and has led to utter confusion between the statistics regulator and the office itself.

Polidano’s supermarket frenzy
After venturing into winemaking, construction magnate Charles Polidano also launched his own brand of pilsner, Ċaqnu Beer. And just to make sure there are enough shelves to sell his products, Polidano embarks on a supermarket chain frenzy for German price busters Lidl – almost all in green areas and outside the development scheme. By the end of the year, four out of seven of his supermarkets have been approved – one of them in Safi against the case officer’s refusal advice, and another in Luqa, also against the objections of the Civil Aviation. A decision on an application in Żebbuġ was postponed despite yet another recommendation for refusal, while another application outside development zone in Żabbar is still pending.

MaltaToday Midweek
As of 18 April, MaltaToday gets another sister paper with the launch of its Wednesday edition. Matthew Vella, 27, is its first editor, with the declared policy to carry on engaging readers in the midweek edition with the fresh, crispy, in-depth analysis and investigative stories that have characterised the Sunday edition for the last eight years.

Rationalisation breaches EU laws
The European Commission confirms to MaltaToday in March that the controversial amendments to the structure plan, increasing development zones by 2.3 per cent, were in breach of the EU directive on Strategic Environmental Impact Assessments (SEA).
The commission starts infringement procedures against Malta after MaltaToday presses for answers in the face of the dubious process launched by the government in 2006.
At the same time, the Nationalist administration finds itself on the receiving end of a serious list of infringement warnings from Brussels, ranging from greenhouse gas emissions to spring hunting, unsafe landfills and exorbitant taxes on imported used cars. The past year has served to show how the ruling party that steered this country into Europe is effectively incapable of living up to the rules and regulations of the club it wanted us to join. At the same time, in the face of mass disgruntlement, Brussels is fast becoming the ultimate empowerment platform of the Maltese citizen.

GRTU defends official in counterfeit drugs case
GRTU Vice-President Mario Debono is exposed in mid-April as the pharmaceuticals importer assisting police in their investigations into a consignment of fake drugs. Despite the controversy, GRTU’s head Vince Farrugia backs Debono to the point of pushing him unashamedly to sign the “Pharmacy of Your Choice” agreement with the government.

John Camilleri explodes, then resigns
The Chairman of the PBS editorial board, John Camilleri, surprises everyone in mid-April when he decides to publish a list of programmes short-listed for the October schedule, embarking on the fiercest clash ever with the PBS Chairman, Joe Fenech Conti, since Austin Gatt’s restructuring in 2004.
By making the short list public, Camilleri confirms the editorial board’s unexpected decision to leave out Lou Bondi’s discussion programme Bondiplus from the October schedule. Yet his decision is overruled by the board of directors.
John Camilleri says he published the names to ensure transparency, and to guarantee that the short list would not be tampered with: a damning comment, which exposes deep suspicions of direct and extensive political interference in PBS programming. Government insists Camilleri’s position is untenable, leading to his eventual resignation. To date, the editorial board remains without a chairman.

Baby dumped in shoebox
The story of a baby dumped out in the cold in a shoebox in a Bormla alleyway captures the hearts of all the Maltese at the start of April. The baby is found by three teenage children playing there, when their attention is caught by whimpering sounds coming out of a cardboard shoebox. Believing it to contain kittens, they open the box to find the infant wrapped in a plastic bag.
Hours later, the 19-year-old single mother from Bormla, living just round the corner, is tracked down and hospitalised for treatment as conflicting versions of the incident start to emerge. Her mother, 37, also unmarried, and who bore her daughter when she was 18, says the next day she had no idea her daughter was pregnant and that it was she who had dumped the shoe box mistaking it for refuse. Shortly after midday, her daughter drove to Hamrun to pick her up as if nothing happened.

Valletta parking scheme
April sees the launch of the Valletta parking scheme, scrapping for good the V licence and providing around 400 parking spaces for non-residents against payment according to the time spent parked in the capital, together with dedicated spaces for residents.
Among the first teething problems, daily commuters find the park-and-ride facility full up by 8am and residents start receiving bills despite the government’s promises they could park for free.
On the positive side, when compared to the last day of the V licence, the first office day under the new system sees a 32 per cent increase in visits to Valletta lasting less than an hour, and an increase of 34 per cent of cars that stayed for less than half an hour.
Vehicles parked for over eight hours, excluding residents’ cars, drop by 60 per cent.
Aaccording to Transport Minister Jesmond Mugliett, the scheme is expected to yield some Lm1.5 million which would cover the costs and the Lm600,000, formerly raised from the V licence.

Michael Falzon goes berserk
Labour’s deputy leader Michael Falzon explodes in Rabat in a Sunday morning speech in May, after sister paper Illum revealed how a Labour sympathiser had been placed on police bail after sending Falzon an anonymous email.
In the email, the person asked Falzon to rally behind Labour leader Alfred Sant to ensure that the party would win the next election.
The police had interrogated the sender and confiscated his personal computer. Although not accused of any crime, the Labour sympathiser was placed on police bail and asked to sign at the police lock-up in Floriana.
In a hysterical speech, Falzon defends his secretary Nathalie Attard and states that he would always stand by his loyal supporters.
To the astonishment of all those present, Falzon launches a virulent attack on moles within the Labour party.

Police shoot psychiatric outpatient dead
Bastjan Borg, a 52-year-old man suffering from mental illness, is shot dead in May by police officers in Qormi. Borg is shot five times, once in the shoulder, three times in the chest and once in the head. Police Commissioner John Rizzo is quick to defend his officers, who alleged that they had been assaulted by Borg, armed with a small penknife; but it transpires Rizzo also completely ignored warnings sent in advance to him by Borg’s relatives calling for his attention, given that their brother was feeling unwell.

Tapes of wrath
Communications and Competitiveness Minister Censu Galea is the target of a Labour campaign exposing tapes recorded without his knowledge in his private office by disgraced ADT office Angelo Debono between 2000 and 2001, in which Galea expresses his inability to control the inefficiencies at the transport authority when it was still under his remit. MaltaToday however reveals that Debono had been charged with insubordination, dereliction of duty and discrimination against his subordinates and was initially suspended and then had his job terminated.
His tapes had provided the Labour Party with a much-needed campaign to deflect attention from the recent chaos stirred publicly by its deputy leader, Michael Falzon, who accused some party officials of waging a mud-slinging campaign against him.

Mater Dei finally opens
The Prime Minister manages to keep to his self-imposed deadline to open the much-delayed Lm250 million Mater Dei Hospital on 28 May, although it turns out to be only a symbolic opening as the hectic migration plan is not even finalised and an agreement with doctors has yet to be reached. The health behemoth is expected to cost the exchequer Lm4 million every month to run. Meanwhile former Nationalist MP Frank Portelli is summoned by the police for questioning about his allegations that “commissions” had been paid over the construction of the hospital but his claims die out soon afterwards.

It’s St Gorg Preca now…
The blessed Dun Gorg Preca from Hamrun, founder of the MUSEUM, is promoted to sainthood by Pope Benedict XVI, amidst a frenzy of claims of miracles performed by him, by means of healing shoe-laces and other pieces of garment that somehow came into contact with the deceased prelate. He marks the first Maltese to become a saint, despite the country’s claims of an unbroken tradition of Christianity since St Paul is alleged to have year shipwrecked here in the year 60 AD.

MEPA approves, then revokes Ramla Development
The Malta Environment and Planning Authority seals the fate of the Ulysses Lodge site in the Calypso Cave area at Ramla l-Ħamra in Gozo, consigning it to redevelopment as a complex of 23 self-catering, villa-style residential units, with underground parking spaces, sub-station and pools, covering a footprint of 39,000 square metres, just 70 metres away from a Natura 2000 protected zone.
The decision triggers a barrage of opposition from Xaghra residents, environmentalist organisations and several other dissenters decrying the rape of Ramla.
In October, however, MEPA performs a dramatic U-turn and revokes its own decision, on the pretext that a small passage of land barely occupying 1.5 per cent belonged to public ownership.

Josie launches far-right party
In June, former Nationalist MP Josie Muscat returned into the swing of national politics with the formation of his new party – Azzjoni Nazzjonali – amid much pomp and breast-beating, but with little to show for in terms of candidates. Flanked by construction magnate Angelo Xuereb and the university lecturer Philip Beattie, who in 2005 led a fascist immigration protest with his right-wing formation Alleanza Nazzjonali Repubblikana, Muscat complains about the loss of family values and Maltese who marry foreigners, but presents no further candidates or other members of his political team.

Policeman caught beating French woman
Police sergeant David Sant is caught on film on 10 May kicking 58-year-old French woman Catherine Sophie Pernot Sprangers in the upper torso and neck during a traffic altercation.
The images are published in MaltaToday Midweek, leading to public outrage and to Sant’s immediate arraignment in court. Sant receives a four-month prison sentence, which is suspended on appeal for two years.
But in an incredible twist of events, Sprangers eventually demands a settlement of €30,000 with MaltaToday, claiming the story had exposed her to undue stress. Never mind the beatings…

Bribery scandal rocks MMA
The Malta Maritime Authority finds itself in the midst of a bribery scandal involving the head and officials of the Small Ships Licensing section, who are under investigation for allegedly receiving kickbacks in return for mariners’ licences issued to boatsmen who were allowed to bypass the course and examination.
John Farrugia, head of the Small Ships Section, from Hal Tarxien, and Ivan Muscat, a clerk within the same section, are suspended from the MMA and charged in court.
The scandal emerged after investigating officers within the authority noticed gross discrepancies between the number of people attending the obligatory six-week course and sitting for the licence test, and the actual number of licence holders, triggering an internal audit spanning the last six years since the exam was introduced.

ADT’s Selvaggi resigns
The Transport Authority’s Chief Executive Officer, Gianfranco Selvaggi, submitted his resignation in June just two days before more transport officials were expected to be arraigned in court over new corruption charges within the Licensing Department, a year since the cash-for-licences scandal erupted.
Denying that his resignation had anything to do with corruption within the authority, Selvaggi, 51, said Minister Jesmond Mugliett had intervened to retain officers with the authority despite their guilty sentence to charges of corruption.

Health minister’s aide in pensions scandal
Health Minister Louis Deguara’s aide, Thomas Woods, is arrested and investigated by the police and be arraigned in court on charges of corruption in the award of invalidity pensions. Directly appointed by Deguara to his secretariat since 1995, Woods has already admitted to investigators by June that he received “gifts” from people applying for their invalidity pension through militant Nationalist activist Saverin Sinagra of Zejtun, aged 71, who acted as go-between.
Psychiatrist and Nationalist MP Joe Cassar was crucial in unearthing the scandal when a client of his told him that he was told to pay bribes to be boarded out or forget about his pension, even though he was entitled to an invalidity pension.

GWU company wants private beach
A General Workers’ Union-owned company is exposed to want to privatise part of Ghadira Bay by applying for a beach concession to cater exclusively for paying clients.
The proposed beach concession covers a small stretch of garigue, sand and rocks situated between the first beach opposite the Seabank Hotel, and the larger beach opposite the bird sanctuary.
This is a second consecutive blow to the environmental and working class credentials of the GWU, whose president Saviour Sammut marched alongside environmentalists protesting against the rape of Ramla l-Hamra in Gozo after MEPA approved 23 villas overlooking the bay.
MaltaToday Midweek had also revealed that the GWU had lobbied with the Prime Minister’s office to hasten the approval of an application for 30 bungalows in a Special Area of Conservation. MEPA approved the outline permit for this development without any fanfare a few days before approving the controversial Ramla l-Hamra development.

Mugliett offers bogus resignation
In what turned out to be a veritable farce, Minister Jesmond Mugliett allegedly offers his resignation to Lawrence Gonzi in the wake of revelations that he had directly intervened to retain two Transport Authority officials, even though they had both been convicted of corruption charges. Gonzi claimed to have turned down the resignation. In reality, however, Mugliett did not even offer a resignation letter as when MaltaToday asks for a copy of it the Office of the Prime Minister responded that it was just discussed verbally.

Joe Mifsud clinches to MFA post
The Malta Football Association’s President Joe Mifsud defeats Norman Darmanin Demajo by just 52 votes against 49, securing another three-year term. Delegates who spoke to MaltaToday after the vote said that Darmanin Demajo had a much stronger showing amongst second and third division clubs, considered to be Mifsud’s territory. With around 90 per cent of associations supporting Mifsud, it was clear that a majority of the football clubs had supported Darmanin Demajo’s candidacy.

Richard Muscat resigns
Malta’s ambassador to Ireland, Richard Muscat, submitted his resignation, ending his diplomatic career, after the Irish press named his 35-year-old son, Massimo, who was accused of alleged sexual assaults on two women in Dublin. Muscat kept news of his son’s arrest and police interrogation last year a closely guarded secret, not even informing Foreign Minister Michael Frendo when he came to be reappointed ambassador earlier this year. Eventually the Irish police dropped the charges against the younger Muscat.

English language student chaos
English language students from across the globe have turned summer into a veritable disaster with wide-ranging misbehaviour, vandalism, brawls and vomiting in the streets, tarnishing Malta’s name abroad and earning headlines as the country of free sex and booze. Towards the end of summer, Tourism Minister Francis Zammit Dimech realises the extent of the problem and promises some tough regulations that would supposedly control the naughty foreign youngsters.

Michael Falzon withdraws resignation
Another comic resignation, this time from the chairman of the Water Services Corporation, Michael Falzon. After clashing with Austin Gatt whom he believed had an “astounding lack of trust” in him in the wake of cost over-runs allegations, Falzon first resigned then withdrew his resignation following conciliatory talks with the same minister. In a matter of hours, the controversy became water under the bridge.

Joe of the rocky boat
PN Secretary General Joe Saliba is chased by the Labour media boarding off construction magnate Zaren Vassallo’s luxury yacht ‘Princess Charlene’, sparking off a debate about party financing and the glaring lack of transparency, although none of the two parties eventually do anything to live up to their claims of transparency.

JRS lawyer awarded Nansen Refugee prize
The Jesuit Refugee Service’s Katrine Camilleri is honoured with the 2007 Nansen Refugee Award by the United Nation’s refugee agency in October, the high-profile recognition by the UNHCR of individuals or organisations that have distinguished themselves in work on behalf of refugees. Camilleri, 37, demonstrated her dedication to helping refugees who arrive in Malta, not only in a decade of work with the JRS but in a determination to continue in the face of threats that included an arson attack on her car and home.

MT lifts the lid on MEP accounts
In a historic first for a Maltese newspaper, the European Ombudsman recognised in September MaltaToday’s right to access to data detailing the allowances received by Malta’s MEPs, as he says the EP’s refusal to grant the newspaper access constituted maladministration. The decision comes two years after MaltaToday submitted its complaint to the EP and has Europe-wide implications lauded by international media and transparency NGOs.

Malta loses two of its giants
The nation lost lexicographer, poet and author Mario Serracino Inglott in September and etnhnographer Gorg Mifsud Chircop in December – both leaving an incredible vacuum in their respective fields.

Judge and magistrate boycotted
After being named and shamed publicly in an unprecedented move by the Commission for the Administration of Justice accusing them of conflict of interest, government decides to ostracise Judge Carmelo Farrugia Sacco and Magistrate Antonio Mizzi by omitting them from the official list of invitees to all state official functions, starting with 13 December – Republic Day.

Caravaggio stirs controversy
At the end of October, MaltaToday exposes “the Great Caravaggio swindles” in a story that reveals how only three of a total of eight paintings exhibited by Heritage Malta are undisputed Caravaggio masterpieces.

Rebecca in the lions’ den
October saw the arrival of pro-abortion activist Dr Rebecca Gomperts, invited by Emy Bezzina of the Alpha Liberal Party. Dr Gomperts found a sizeable vociferous crowd opposing her outside Castille Hotel where she gave a speech on her floating abortion clinic and on medical abortion, with Evangelical extremists accusing Bezzina of bringing a curse to the islands.

Ghar id-Dud promenade waiting to cave in
MaltaToday reveals a scientific report in November commissioned by the Sliema council detailing how the promenade could collapse due to rising sea levels and storms, with the fearful prospect of fatalities, unless measures are taken to mitigate the threat in the popular spot.

Britain betrays Malta
Foreign Minister Michael Frendo returned to his home in Sliema at the end of November, closing behind him a chapter that enticed the whole nation into supporting his bid to head the Commonewealth – a dream robbed by an Indian diplomat supported by the invisible hand of the British. The secret vote between 53 nations and regimes came as a surprise for many, but also marks a sudden cooling of relations between Malta and Britain, with the latter accused of betraying a European colleague for mighty India.


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30 December 2007

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