‘Lacks experience, certification’
The partner that Gozo Channel has selected to run a fast ferry service lacked the necessary experience and certification, the Public Contracts Review Board heard on Tuesday.
The selected bidder – Islands Ferry Network – is a joint venture between Magro Brothers, a family-owned firm involved in the production and provision of food, and Fortel Investments Ltd, owners of the Fortina Hotel.
In a six-hour-long hearing, marine engineer Kurt Gutteridge, a member of the evaluation committee, said the chosen company had no background in fast ferry operations. He also said the company did not possess an International Safety Maritime Code or a document of compliance.
Banker Simon Azzopardi said the selection board had not gone into the details of the companies submitting the bids but rested on the presentations they gave and the documents provided.
Both said their task on the evaluation committee was to select the best partner for Gozo Channel to be able to bid for a Transport Ministry tender for State subsidies to run ferry crossings.
The committee was chaired by the new Malta Financial Services Authority’s CEO, Joe Cuschieri.
Mr Gutteridge said the committee had only evaluated the bids as presented to them and had not gone into the details of the technical requirements.
Lawyer Anne Fenech, on behalf of Virtu Ferries, which has filed a formal objection to the selection process, asked whether Fortel Investments, which also operates Captain Morgan cruises, had ever provided fast ferry services. Mr Gutteridge replied it had not.
Nor, he added, did Fortel have the necessary certification according to maritime law requirements to handle such an operation. It did not need a document of compliance, as it would be operating in territorial waters, Mr Gutteridge noted.
Islands Ferry Network’s bid was the best in terms of price and in meeting Gozo Channel’s requirements, he continued, a point contradicted by captain Gaetano Mallia, a Virtu Ferries official, who told the board all fast ferry operators were obliged to have such certification independent of where they operated.
Mr Azzopardi, an executive at Bank of Valletta’s chairman office, said the selected partner’s offer was the most financially beneficial for Gozo Channel.
Asked if the companies forming the Islands Ferry Network had the necessary financial documentation in place, including accounts for the previous five years and turnover, he said the committee did not go into such details.
Dr Fenech pointed out that Bank of Valletta chairman Deo Scerri sat on the board of directors of Fortina Contracting Ltd and Fortina Development Ltd, both owned by Fortel Investments Ltd, until last October.
Virtu Ferries, the Malta-Sicily catamaran service provider for the past 30 years, are contesting Gozo Channel’s decision to select Islands Ferry Network.
The Sunday Times of Malta has reported that a Gozo Channel evaluation board selected Virtu Ferries in a preliminary market consultation process. The process was scrapped and restarted.
A fresh evaluation board was appointed, and the government also changed some of the requirements in a Transport Ministry public service obligation tender.
Paul Cardona, a maritime engineer engaged by Gozo Channel on the board of adjudicators for the first process, said Virtu Ferries had been chosen as Gozo Channel’s fast ferry partner because their bid was by far the most compliant and the cheapest.
He admitted he did not know why the process was restarted, adding he only learned about it through the media.
During the hearing, Gozo Channel lawyers argued that the selection of Islands Ferry Network was not bound by public procurement rules, as this was not a tender but a preliminary market consultation. Gozo Channel selected the best partner with which to make a final bid for the government’s public tender, they said.
Gozo Channel’s preliminary market document said the partner had to have “the necessary experience, expertise or resources to provide fast ferry services”.