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MALTATODAY 26 February 2023

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3 maltatoday | SUNDAY • 26 FEBRUARY 2023 NEWS lion if the contract was rescinded by the law courts. "These doubts [about the con- tract]," judge Depasquale ruled, should have also been raised by all those who were entrusted to safeguard the Maltese govern- ment's rights. "This includes Dr Konrad Miz- zi, both when he was energy and health minister at the time the original agreement was signed, and more so when, despite no longer holding the health port- folio, signed various other agree- ments that amended the original one, and consciously weakened the government's rights, which changes only benefitted Vitals and Steward, and certainly not the government and the citizen, who had to be the ultimate ben- eficiary of the projects entrusted to Steward and which never ma- terialised," the judge said. In simpler words, the actions taken by government officials, particularly Konrad Mizzi, placed the government at the mercy of the foreign company that did not fulfil its contractual obligations. The operator's bathroom The judge expressed astonish- ment how the government did not terminate the concession forthwith given that Vitals and later Steward failed to fulfil their end of the deal. Depasquale highlighted that the 'list' of completed works that Steward submitted in court in- cluded a detailed exposition on renovations to the bathroom used by the telephone operator at the Gozo hospital. "The photographic report [sub- mitted by Steward] starts with a photo of a new helicopter alleg- edly bought in 2016, and contin- ues with a refurbished bathroom used by the telephone operator at the Gozo Hospital, with details of all the ceramics that were in- stalled," the judge noted. He went on: "The court is per- plexed with the dearth of proof put forward by Steward, which probably reflects the dearth of investment and projects Steward has planned for the future." But for all the harsh words re- served for Vitals and Steward, to which the judge attributes bad faith and possibly criminal intent, Depasquale went relatively easy on the Muscat administration. 'Ingenuity' Apart from singling out Kon- rad Mizzi and despite expressing reservations on the conduct of public officials, the judge would only describe their actions as the result of "ingenuity". "The court is seriously con- cerned how public officials could ever consciously place such oner- ous obligations on government, and would like to believe that such obligations were assumed, possibly as a result of ingenuity, if not pressure so that the original project remain viable," Depas- quale said. However, he did not mince his words in describing the actions of Steward and Vitals as "fraudulent and possibly criminal". The cancellation of the contract ends one of the dark legacies of the Muscat administration that continued to hound his succes- sor. It does not, however, end the separate magisterial inquiry that is probing the same contract for possible criminal behaviour by public officials and others. Since 2020, Abela's administra- tion had been negotiating some form of settlement with Steward Healthcare but no progress was reached, with the American com- pany asking for more money. After walking away from the table, government insisted it will be waiting for the court ruling be- fore taking any decisions on the hospitals contract. Now that the court has rub- bished the agreement the onus is on government to map out the way forward. Meanwhile, Gozo remains without a promised state of the art hospital, St Luke's is in the same pitiful state it has always been and medical tourism is not an economic niche. MATTHEW AGIUS THE notary who published the 2016 contract granting three public hospitals to Vitals Global Healthcare was later stripped of his warrant after misappropri- ating client funds. Thomas Vella's name crops up a dozen times in Friday's judgment by Mr Justice Francesco Depasquale, in which the con- cession and its ancillary agreements were declared null on the grounds of fraud. Vella is the son of the late judge Patrick Vella, who had himself been jailed in 2007 for bribery. In 2020, Thomas Vella was fined €60,500 by the FIAU, for systematic com- pliance failures relating to the Prevention of Money Laundering and Funding of Terrorism Regulations which were noted during an inspection in 2018. Amongst the breaches reported were failures to conduct customer, business and jurisdiction risk assessments and a failure to carry out enhanced due dil- igence measures "for a particular file which included a high-risk situation." According to the Times of Malta, in May last year, Ireland's High court had ordered Vella's insurers to pay €3.1 million in com- pensation to a man left brain damaged and needing round the clock medical care after Vella ran him over in Sliema. State news portal TVM reported that Vella had been ordered to refund more than €20,000 to a French client in Febru- ary 2021. The notary had been entrusted with the money to pay for taxes in con- nection with a property purchase, but had never been forwarded to the Commis- sioner for Tax. However, this judgment cannot be found on the court's website and neither can the several other cases last reported as ongoing in 2022 in a Facebook page set up by clients of the former notary. Vella's warrant had been withdrawn by the Notarial Council in December 2019 after he admitted to charges of fraud and misappropriation. The choice of notary is but a footnote in the story of the hospitals deal, now confirmed as having been mired in cor- ruption at every stage, but arguably also speaks volumes about the intent of the contracting parties. The concession agreement published by the former notary, between Malta In- dustrial Parks Limited, later Indis, and the Commissioner for Lands on one side and Ram Tumuluri on behalf of Vitals Global Healthcare Assets Limited on the other, was struck down in spectacular fashion on Friday, with the judge questioning how the government had allowed itself to be strong-armed into changing the agree- ment to the benefit of one party. Under that agreement, St Luke's Hos- pital, Karin Grech Hospital and the Gozo General Hospital had been handed to the obscure consortium. Less than two years after being granted the concession, Vitals had sold it on to Steward Healthcare, together with the €55 million debt accrued by VGH, for just €1. The judgment described the actions of both Vitals and its successor in title, Stew- ard Healthcare, as well as their investors as "fraudulent and possibly criminal" and slammed the due diligence carried out by Ganado Advocates, the law firm engaged by the government for this purpose. Notary who published Vitals contract was convicted of misappropriating clients' deposits Steward blame game: 'It's not me!' Steward's CEO Armin Ernst with then prime minister Joseph Muscat at the Steward Healthcare head office

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