MaltaToday | 18 May 2008 | Court confirms MEPA abuse against its own chief lawyer

NEWS | Sunday, 18 May 2008

Court confirms MEPA abuse against its own chief lawyer

When MEPA’s chief lawyer Anthony Degaetano uncovered the alleged falsification of plans, implicating the firm Sant and Mugliett, things turned nasty. MATTHEW VELLA reports

The Malta Environment and Planning Authority (MEPA) has lost a court appeal it instituted against a 2005 court judgement that had decided a charge against its own in-house head of legal services Anthony Degaetano, issued by the MEPA director Godwin Cassar, was illegal.
The case was one of five instituted by Degaetano against MEPA and third parties concerning the alleged falsification of plans by his neighbour, and other libel procedures against Godwin Cassar. The cases are part of the saga at the heart of MEPA after Degaetano exposed the alleged mishandling of a planning application by the firm of Sant and Mugliett, whose partner is former roads minister Jesmond Mugliett.
The appeals court upheld the sentence by Judge Geoffrey Valenzia which found that a report and a written warning issued by Cassar on the 19 and 24 January 2001 respectively, purporting to have found Degaetano guilty of submitting a false report in a complaint to MEPA’s enforcement section to investigate illegal works of a neighbouring house, were illegal and abusive.
Degaetano was accused by Cassar of submitting a false report on 19 January 2001: “I believe this conduct is not acceptable and should the necessary investigations confirm the offence, disciplinary action… will be taken.”
When Degaetano asked for his right to defend himself, on 24 January 2001 Cassar again wrote to Degaetano, ‘finding’ him guilty of submitting a false report: “I am writing to inform you… that your conduct in this case is unacceptable. Please consider this latter as a written warning.”
Degaetano complained he was not given a fair hearing, threatening legal action. Cassar wrote back saying the threats of criminal libel were “totally unacceptable”, and that the authority would take further disciplinary action if he persisted with legal action.
In the first court, Judge Geoffrey Valenzia found that the “minimum principle of natural justice” was not followed in the procedures against Degaetano who was disciplined by MEPA without being given the chance to defend himself.
The court established that the complaint was not false but true, and that the lawyer was not even given the minimum right to defend himself before MEPA. Indicative of this was the fact that Cassar had informed the MEPA board before its meeting of 25 January 2001 that he would carry out investigations to establish whether lawyer Degaetano had made the alleged false report. Cassar had however already informed Degaetano he had found him guilty of the charge he was supposed to yet investigate, in a letter he sent to the senior legal counsel on 24 January.
In a corresponding criminal libel suit Degaetano instituted against Cassar over the 19 January report and accusations, Magistrate Padovani Grima decided that the lawyer’s report was “not false, nor was it untrue, erroneous, incorrect or wrong”, establishing that the lawyer’s report was true. No libel action could be taken against Cassar since the report was privileged correspondence between public officials under the Press Act.
But Padovani Grima also said this privilege might not extend in the case of the actual accusation of 24 January 2001. In fact other criminal libel proceedings instituted by the police against Godwin Cassar are still pending before Magistrate Tonio Mizzi.
The fourth case is the challenge made by Degaetano against the Commissioner of Police, after failing to take action against the owner of the neighbouring house for the alleged falsification of plans. The police claimed another MEPA lawyer (Godwin Cassar’s own defence counsel) had written to them saying MEPA had not ordered any action to be taken on the allegedly false report, and that they were bound by this opinion. Magistrate Hayman dismissed the plea and decided there was a case to institute criminal charges against the owner of the neighbouring house.
Degaetano claimed the planning permit was issued without a formal application being submitted, but simply on a letter of the firm Sant and Mugliett to “clarify very minor adjustments” for changes to the plans, over which Magistrate Hayman has now ordered criminal action.
In another pending case before Judge J.R. Micallef, it is being alleged that after the letter was received, the case officer asked the architect to collect the permit in a very short time – specifically, it was recommended by MEPA for approval three days prior to its publication in the local papers on Saturday, and approved that same Saturday by MEPA in a record time of just three days.
A former MEPA board member, Labour MP Joe Mizzi had even testified in the court proceedings stating that Degaetano was being victimized, even mentioning “a parliamentary secretary who had pressured enforcement officers not to take steps against someone who had broken the planning laws” – an allegation referring to Jesmond Mugliett who was then junior minister for sports and culture.
The matter was brought up in parliament by Mugliett himself, stating the matter was being handled by his firm Sant and Mugliett and that he had finally only taken an interest in the case since it concerned one of his constituents, a reference to the owner of the neighbouring property.
Mugliett claimed “a high MEPA official [was] abusing his position”, referring to Degaetano – accusations now dismissed by the Appeals Court judgement.
Since the start of the legal clash, the legal services at MEPA have been outsourced to outside consultants who now form part of an “internal” legal office under Godwin Cassar’s direct responsibility.
The office however does not included MEPA’s own head of legal services, Degaetano, and MEPA’s court cases and advice are now handled by the outside legal consultants.

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Court confirms MEPA abuse against its own chief lawyer


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