Hours after Government gave details about the leasing arrangement of Maltese vessel Jean De La Valette (JDLV) to ease the country’s seabridge woes, the vessel is now mired in controversy.
Information surfaced via several Maltese press reports that Francis Portelli, the managing director of Virtu Holdings Ltd—the company which the National Infrastructure Development Company (NIDCO) will be leasing the vessel from, has been involved in a huge oil scandal in Malta, with allegations of money laundering and bribery still hanging over his head.
Portelli is currently facing charges of bribery in a case connected to the 2013 Enemalta oil scandal, which is considered one of Malta’s most prominent cases. In November 2017, he again appeared in a Maltese court. He was one of several men accused in a corruption scandal on fuel bunkering connected to his alleged involvement in Island Bunker Oils (IBOL). Both court matters are still ongoing.
When asked if NIDCO had done a background check on Virtu Holdings Ltd and if he was aware that Portelli was before the court on allegations of corruption yesterday, Works and Transport Minister Rohan Sinanan said he could not speak on this issue.
“I have no comment because I have no information on what you are speaking about,” Sinanan said, advising that journalists refer the matter to NIDCO.
In response to questions by Opposition Senator Wade Mark in the Senate yesterday about the leasing arrangement of the JDLV, Sinanan said Government acquired the boat “for one year” to complement the Galleons Passage and T&T Spirit, which have servicing the seabridge between Trinidad and Tobago.
The Government has an option to renew the contract for an additional six months if needed, Sinanan said. He said international and local tenders went out last August and closed in October. Three companies submitted bids.
“The preferred tenderer is Virtu Holdings and the contract is at this time is being finalised by NIDCO. As soon as that is completed the figures will be presented.”
In a follow-up question, Mark queried what type of contract will be awarded, Sinanan said NIDCO had utilised the professional service of a maritime firm in the United Kingdom.
Mark enquired from Sinanan if he was aware that the vessel “is defective...that it was subject to arbitration in England and also court proceedings in Australia.”
Sinanan shot back saying that Mark’s comment had not surprised him.
“I expected the Opposition to bring fake news and try to do damage all the efforts by this Government.”
During an interview with Guardian Media last Friday, Sinanan announced that the JDLV was scheduled to arrive at the end of May to replace the limping T&T Express, which is up for sale.
In an immediate response, UNC activist and former minister Devant Maharaj said the Government has many questions to answer about the procurement of the vessel, which remains a mystery.
Maharaj said information by the Government came like a thief in the night.
“Once again, the nation was surprised and stunned when Minister Rohan Sinanan dropped it on the country over the weekend that another ferry would be leased, which has prompted many questions.”
Maharaj has since instructed his attorneys to file a Freedom of Information request to NIDCO, the Ministry of Works and Transport and Port Authority of T&T to get answers.
Last month, NIDCO’s chairman Herbert George and Port Authority of T&T (PATT) chairman Lyle Alexander visited Malta to view the ten-year-old vessel, which has a capacity to accommodate 800 passengers and 230 cars.
Alexander yesterday sidestepped all questions regarding the procurement process of the JDLV.
Asked why the public was not provided information by NIDCO earlier, Alexander said nothing was “sprung upon” on the population.
“Before things are said decisions have to be made. I am not sure that the expectation is that every decision that is contemplated has to go out in the public domain. It’s about things being done in the time it was done. The timing was not right.”
He said the boat’s tendering process was handled by NIDCO and not PATT.
PATT played an operative role in establishing the suitability of the vessel to service the inter-island route, Alexander said, adding it had met all the necessary requirements.
The vessel is expected to sail from Spain to our shores next month in a trip expected to take eight days.
Portelli's checkered past
Managing Director of Virtu Holdings Limited, Francis A Portelli, has been accused of corruption, bribery and money laundering internationally.
Portelli was one of several men accused in a corruption scandal on fuel bunkering via his involvement in Island Bunker Oils (IBOL) and appeared in a Maltese court last November also facing charges of bribery in a case connected to the Enemalta oil scandal of 2013.
An online report by Malta Today’s Matthew Vella dated November 5, 2017, claimed IBOL had been restyled as Valletta Bunkers Limited.
Portelli, along with Anthony Cassar, were both charged with corruption and money laundering through their dealings in IBOL in a separate case to the oil corruption scandal.
Described as one of the most prominent cases in Malta, the focus shifted to Portelli after he launched a 25 million pound bond issue for his company Virtu Finance plc and as a director of the guarantor and 50 per cent shareholder of Virtu Holdings, which is the parent company of Virtu Finance. He remained a party in the criminal inquiry in court, which led to his personal assets being frozen.
In a hearing on January 30, 2018, the Constitutional Court confirmed a ruling which held that a person facing criminal proceedings has a right to silence when testifying before a parliamentary committee.
They said any ruling or guideline to the contrary would be in breach of fundamental rights.
Reporter: Shaliza Hassanali & Anna-Lisa Paul