To register a piece of land or property as your own at the Land Registry, you need a legitimate deed of ownership, a marked Land Registry map, and a declaration that your submissions are truthful. The Land Registrar then approves the application unless something seems dodgy, amiss or requiring further verification.
In the case of the Nadur land registered by a medieval foundation – upon which dozens of residents have lived for generations, many in their freehold homes – the two applications ticked all the three requirements.
But there was a complication: the extensive land deeds were hundreds of years old and written in Latin (a language the registrars or officials do not understand). And the applications were for a swathe of Nadur land as large as four football grounds on which dozens of houses stood, some with prior registrations.
The question is whether the dozens of houses covered by the application, put in by the lawyer Carmelo Galea on behalf of a 350-year-old foundation called Beneficcju ta Sant Antonio delli Navarra, had anything to do with the medieval foundation.
Several notaries consulted by The Shift and Lovin Malta said this should have rung alarm bells and subjected to further scrutiny before approval.
Instead, the assistant land registrar for Gozo, Marlin Vella, approved the applications within a week.
When asked for his explanation, Vella told this investigation: “I pride myself of (sic) having an efficient and hands-on office, where applications are not kept on hold unnecessarily.”
Speaking in parliament, Parliamentary Secretary Alex Muscat described the approval of the applications as having been “premature.”
A senior lands official, speaking anonymously, told our investigative team he would not have approved the applications.
Police investigation fizzles
Parliamentary Secretary Alex Muscat told The Shift and Lovin Malta that people who spoke to him alleged collusion between Vella and Galea, and that Vella, a lawyer, used to work part time for Galea until recently. The two lawyers insist that Vella has not worked for Galea for the last 14 years, and that in recent years Vella was only at Galea’s office as a client.
Galea had represented Vella in a case for compensation on missed payments due to having simultaneously been the registrar of Land Registry and agent director of Public Registry in Gozo. Vella won and the court ordered the government to pay him €74,618.
The parliamentary secretary has passed on allegations of collusion to the police who investigated Vella last summer. The outcome of the investigation is unknown. Well-informed sources said he was also given a transfer order, which he resisted.
Yet the Nadur files were transferred away from Gozo, where Vella remains Head, to Land Registry’s Head Office in Valletta. The national land registrar, Claude Sapiano, has since commissioned professional translations of the Latin deeds.
Scrutiny of these translated documents seems to show a discrepancy of around 2,000 square metres between the size of land granted in the 1737 contract and the size of the area in Galea’s applications.
Vella cites court cases to defend registration
In reply to questions, Vella also partly justified his approval of the applications by writing that he “never had any reason to doubt the veracity of Dr Galea’s applications”, mentioning “several properties” in which the benefice (foundation) had “defended its title successfully in court”.
“These same individuals,” he wrote in an email, “had subsequently lodged applications to cancel previous applications for registration of property in their name, and later bought the property from the same Beneficcju.”
Asked last week which cases he was referring to, Vella mentioned cases at Ta’ Marġa in Qala and reiterated that the “courts decided in favour of the benefice”.
Yet the court never delivered judgement or “decided” on the two cases in question: the cases, in the names of plaintiffs John Mercieca and Michael Xerri, were merely renounced or halted by the plaintiffs in 2018. The lawyer of the two plaintiffs, or residents, was Carmelo Galea.
The two residents, whose ancestors had lived at Ta’ Marġa for more than 120 years, had filed the cause against the Archdiocese, which at the time administered the lands. This changed in 2017 when, in a dramatic turnaround after the Church had spent years arguing in court that it had jurisdiction over the benefice under Canon Law, the Curia suddenly accepted the claim by the Stagno Navarra siblings that they were the descendants of Cosmana Navarra, the noblewoman who had founded the benefice.
The Curia then appointed Stagno Navarra’s nominee for Rector, lawyer Patrick Valentino, who is the partner of Magistrate Rachel Montebello. Valentino then proceeded to take over the defence of the two court cases from the Archdiocese.
Around six months later a company called Carravan Ltd was formed – 60% owned by Dei Conti Holdings Ltd (belonging to the Stagno Navarras) and 20% each by Galea and Carrac Ltd.
Carrac Ltd is in turn owned by retired magistrate Dennis Montebello and his two daughters, including Rachel, the serving magistrate.
Carravan Ltd has since acquired developable parcels of land from the benefice under perpetual emphyteusis, which were then in turn passed on to developers. One of these parcels is 400 metres away from Ta’ Marga, where property magnate Joseph Portelli has already built around 100 flats and has an application for 63 more. Another is in Nadur, at an area known as Tas-Sajtun, where an application for a block of 71 flats has generated widespread opposition.
At around the same time, Valentino, the Rector, signed a promise of sale agreement (konvenju) of perpetual emphyteusis on the land at Ta’ Marġa with Dei Conti Holdings. Carmelo Galea was the secretary of Stagno Navarras’ company Dei Conti.
This means that while Galea represented the two residents in court, he had gotten into business with the Stagno Navarras who had gotten the land being contested in court via the preliminary agreement. This preliminary agreement was then converted into actual perpetual emphyteusis in May 2018 at a time when the court case was still ongoing.
Meanwhile, minutes show the court was told, in one court session after the other for around 16 months, that the parties were negotiating, or due to sign contracts to settle out of court.
Eventually, the residents represented by Galea bought the land subject to litigation, paying a share to the Stagno Navarras and another share to the benefice for perpetual emphyteusis. They forked out a total of €900,000 – €536,000 to the Stagno Navarras and €204,000 to the benefice. The residents then renounced the court case.
Asked to comment on a possible conflict of interest, due to his representation of the residents’ cause and simultaneous business interests with the opposing party, possibly in breach of the Code of Ethics and Conduct for Advocates, Galea said he is “precluded from [making] any comments regarding my professional services and especially those that refer to the relationship with any of my clients”.
“However,” he added, “I can assure (you) that I have always been frank and honest with my clients and have always acted throughout with their consent and authorisation”.
This is part of an investigative series being published jointly by The Shift and Lovin Malta about an ongoing land dispute in Gozo. The investigative team had strategic and research input by Caroline Muscat and Chris Peregin. More updates to follow.