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Inquiries saga far from over: a guide through the maze

Three inquiries are still underway, all prompted by Simon Busuttil

Simon Busuttil and his team on the way to court. Photo: Mark Zammit Cordina

Simon Busuttil and his team on the way to court. Photo: Mark Zammit Cordina

A number of magisterial inquiries probing alleged wrongdoing by top government officials are still under way, despite Tourism Minister Konrad Mizzi saying the Egrant inquiry conclusions “cleared” him and the Prime Minister’s chief of staff, Keith Schembri.

Dr Mizzi’s claim came in the wake of the publication of the magisterial inquiry into allegations that Prime Minister Joseph Muscat’s wife, Michelle, was the owner of the once-secret Panama company Egrant.

The inquiry found no evidence linking Dr Muscat and his wife to the company, with Magistrate Aaron Bugeja saying there was no documentation supporting the allegations.

The inquiry also established that the Muscat family did not have any accounts at Pilatus Bank and the declarations of trust that were given to the investigating magistrate contained falsified signatures.

Three other similar probes, each initiated on the request of former Opposition leader Simon Busuttil, are ongoing.

Inquiry 1 – Passport sale kickbacks

The first inquiry was initiated after Dr Busuttil presented “documented evidence” which he claimed proved Mr Schembri had received kickbacks from the controversial cash-for-passports scheme with the help of Dr Muscat’s financial consultant, Brian Tonna.

Dr Busuttil said that the “proof” he had in his possession showed that €166,831 had been paid by three Russian nationals after they had successfully applied for Maltese citizenship.

It was alleged that, shortly after Mr Tonna had received the money from the Russians, he made two payments of €50,000 each to Mr Schembri’s Pilatus Bank account.

The pair have insisted the money was a loan repayment dating back years.

The magistrate decreed that the allegations should be the focus of a separate inquiry from the one looking into the Egrant allegations. Magistrate Natasha Galea Sciberras was selected by lot, as is required by law, to investigate.

Mr Schembri has declared that he felt “absolute confidence” in the judiciary and that he would be cooperating fully with the inquiry.

Timeline:

April 25, 2017 – Dr Busuttil claims that Mr Schembri received kickbacks from the controversial cash-for-passports programme.

April 27, 2017 – Dr Busuttil spends more than an hour before Magistrate Bugeja handing over what he claimed was proof of corruption in the citizenship sale scheme.

May 4, 2017 – The Opposition announces that Magistrate Bugeja has decided there are enough grounds for Mr Schembri and Mr Tonna to face a criminal investigation over the allegations of kickbacks on the sale of passports.

May 9, 2017 – Magistrate Galea Sciberras is selected by lot to handle the inquiry into the kickbacks claims.

August 18, 2017 – Scores of company representatives are brought to testify behind closed doors in a marathon hearing as part of the inquiry.

Inquiry 2 – Payments to Adrian Hillman

Less than a month after claiming Mr Schembri took kickbacks from the sale of passports, Dr Busuttil alleged in the midst of the election campaign that he had passed money to former Allied Newspapers managing director Adrian Hillman. He claimed the money was passed directly or through his secret company, Lester Holdings, with the assistance of “his other accomplice”, Mr Tonna.

In a televised news conference two weeks before the general election, Dr Busuttil said that Mr Schembri had paid Mr Hillman €650,000, calling this a “textbook case of bribes and money laundering”. Dr Busuttil alleged that the money was recycled within 24 hours and invested in international bonds through financial intermediaries, accusing the Police Commissioner of having been aware of the case the previous year but failing to act.

While Mr Schembri said that the allegations were a rehash of an old story, Mr Hillman categorically denied he had ever received any money from him or any of his companies.

Dr Busuttil filed a court application asking for the fresh information to be considered.

Magistrate Bugeja again decreed there was sufficient evidence for the documents presented by Dr Busuttil to be looked into, and Magistrate Josette Demicoli was selected by lot to carry out the probe.

Timeline:

May 17, 2017 – Dr Busuttil alleges in a televised press conference two weeks before the snap election that Mr Schembri paid Mr Hillman €650,000 in a “textbook case of bribes and money laundering”.

May 18, 2017 – Dr Busuttil presents a court application asking Magistrate Bugeja to consider the fresh evidence.

May 25, 2017 – Magistrate Demicoli is selected to conduct the inquiry into the money-laundering allegations.

Inquiry 3 –Panama companies

Just over a month after the June general election, Dr Busuttil filed yet another court application asking the duty magistrate to launch a criminal inquiry to examine whether Tourism Minister Konrad Mizzi and Mr Schembri broke money-laundering laws when opening their once-secret companies in Panama.

In addition, the request called for the investigation to include Prime Minister Joseph Muscat, as well as accountants and auditors Mr Tonna and Karl Cini, Kasco Limited employee Malcolm Scerri and Mr Hillman.

Magistrate Ian Farrugia ordered a criminal inquiry into the allegations the following week, noting the prerequisites for an investigation were satisfied.

All seven individuals appealed the decision, with Mr Justice Antonio Mizzi, who was on duty that day, selected to hear the appeal. This immediately raised eyebrows, since the judge is married to Labour Party MEP Marlene Mizzi.

Dr Busuttil subsequently requested the judge recuse himself from hearing the appeals, also noting that Ms Mizzi had made public comments about the cases.

The former PN leader subsequently filed a constitutional application challenging the judge’s refusal to recuse himself and claiming a violation of his right to a fair hearing.

Earlier this month, the First Hall of the Civil Court in its constitutional jurisdiction upheld Dr Busuttil’s request, ordering that a different judge be assigned to the case. The court noted that the fact that the judge was married to the Labour MEP did not in itself put his impartiality in doubt but when this was coupled with the comments made by Ms Mizzi, it gave rise to serious doubt about justice being seen to be done.

Timeline:

July 14, 2017 – Dr Busuttil asks the court to examine whether money-laundering laws were broken when Dr Mizzi and Mr Schembri opened secret companies in Panama.

July 26, 2017 – Magistrate Farrugia orders the launch of a criminal inquiry into Dr Busuttil’s allegations.

July 27, 2017 – The Prime Minister, Mr Schembri, Dr Mizzi, Mr Tonna, Mr Cini, Mr Scerri and Mr Hillman appeal the magistrate’s decree. Dr Busuttil objects to Mr Justice Mizzi hearing the appeal, asking him to recuse himself because he is married to a Labour MEP.

October 19, 2017 – Dr Busuttil files a constitutional application claiming a violation of his right to a fair hearing after the judge refuses to recuse himself.

July 18, 2018 – The application is upheld and the court orders that another judge should hear the appeal.

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