Mr. Justice Anthony Ellul has rejected an appeal filed by Nationalist MP Jason Azzopardi against a decision in a defamation case he had instituted against Justice Minister Owen Bonnici over allegations that Azzopardi had favoured a PN benefactor in the sale of the Lowenbrau brewery whilst occupying government office.
The former Nationalist minister had filed defamation proceedings against Bonnici over allegations that Azzopardi had interfered in a 2009 transfer of the land occupied by the former Lowenbrau brewery in Qormi.
This after a press conference in which Bonnici had announced that he had “sworn information” to confirm that Azzopardi had interfered in the process of sale and ensured the land was sold to businessman and PN benefactor Nazzareno Vassallo in 2009 at 1990 values, for a mere €706,400.
But in January 2019 a court of Magistrates had dismissed the case. Azzopardi had then filed an appeal insisting that he had never met Vassallo, nor told him that he would seek a compromise on the issue.
The case revolved around land in Qormi which the government had given on perpetual emphyteusis to LBM Breweries Ltd in 1990. This emphyteutical concession had a condition that LBM Breweries Ltd “shall use the site for industrial purposes specifically for the production of alcoholic and non-alcolholic beverages …..”
In December 2009, the Government had transferred the ownership of the land to the company and declared that it was withdrawing any conditions on it.
This renunciation of conditions was raised in parliament and eventually led to the Lands Department insisting that the contract was null due to procedural irregularities. In May 2011, the Commissioner for Lands filed a judicial letter against LBM (which had since changed its name to Cater Group) informing it of the issues and requesting it to take steps to rescind the contract.
Eventually, an agreement between the government and Cater Group Ltd had been reached and three architects had been appointed to estimate the value of the land, leading to the figure of €706,400. After the payment made in 1990 was deducted, a total of €240,526.33 was left over and this was paid to the Government.
In January 2017, Bonnici had alleged that Vassallo had met Azzopardi with the aim of finding a compromise. The court noted that this was in reference to Vassallo’s testimony in a separate case in which he had said “I received a response from the Lands Department because I spoke and had even gone to the Minister responsible at the time and the answer had been that they were ready to sit around a table and find a compromise.”
Bonnici had argued that it had been through Azzopardi’s intervention that the compromise had been found.
The Court of Appeal, presided by judge Anthony Ellul, observed that the proof that this meeting between Vassallo and Azzopardi took place and that the words “we will find a compromise” were said by Azzopardi had to be provided by Bonnici.
Vassallo was never summoned to testify in this case.
The court noted that it was not clear when Vassallo had met with the minister. It noted that Azzopardi had been Parliamentary Secretary for Lands and later a minister under whose authority the Lands Department fell.
It also pointed out that it was hard to believe that the Commissioner for Lands and the Director General entered into discussions and reached an agreement with Care Group Ltd behind Azzopardi’s back, when it had been Azzopardi himself who gave a clear order that legal proceedings should be taken. “After all the plaintiff had been their superior and they answered to him” observed the judge.
The court said it would not believe that Albert Mamo and the Director General went against an order from their superiors and instead, on their own initiative persuaded the other party to establish a price for the condition.
The issue had been serious enough that Albert Mamo himself testified that as soon as he found out about the contract published in 2009 that “I immediately called the minister and told him, listen at that time it was Dr. Jason Azzopardi…” said the court, saying that it was likely that Azzopardi was involved from the moment that Mamo found out what had happened in his department during his absence. “The probability is that he was being kept abreast of the negotiations and final agreement reached with Care Group Limited.”
Additionally, the NAO report had stated that Azzopardi had “vehmently argued that the application of the 1990 rates was legally sound and just” noted the court, saying that there would have been no need for him to defend the method used to establish the compensation to be paid to government if he had not been informed of it.
Those holding political office must be prepared to be subjected to harsh criticism, said the court. All that took place between March 2011, when Azzopardi ordered legal action to take place and 5 June 2012, when the compromise contract was published, took place when Azzopardi was Parliamentary Secretary and Minister responsible for Government Lands. “Whether he likes it or not, the plaintiff must carry the political responsibility for that which took place under his watch.”
The court said there was no doubt that Azzopardi had accepted the settlement with Cater Group Limited which meant that the government would stop legal proceedings ordered in March 2011. He had also accepted that the government receive €240,525.33 in compensation for the property.
It was irrelevant whether a meeting about the compromise between Azzopardi and Vassallo ever took place, said the court. “That truth is only known to the plaintiff and Vassallo. One must see the larger picture, that is that [Azzopardi] was aware of the discussions underway…with Care Group Limited.”
Irrespective of whether Azzopardi had personally told Vassallo that they were going to seek a compromise or not…that fact alone is not enough for the court to conclude that the defendant is guilty of defamation.”
It would have been a different story had the evidence shown that all that took place after the judicial letter of 20 May 2001 to the publication of the contract in 2012 had happened behind Azzopardi’s back, said the court, “but the evidence gives an altogether different picture.”