Labour deputy leader Chris Cardona faced allegations of being at the centre of the plot to murder Daphne Caruana Galizia in court this week. Ivan Martin challenged him about his alleged role in the journalist’s killing and the former economy minister's relationships with the people allegedly involved in the plot.
What did you think of Daphne Caruana Galizia?
She was a journalist who mixed the journalistic sphere with the popular sphere. Daphne used to, I believe, evoke a populist element. And she had an agenda. Her agenda was very clear, in sync with the Nationalist party.
And that is not bad, as long as you express that, that is not bad at all.
But then, particularly in the last, I would say, 15 to 20 years, I believe she went on a tangent. And she did not write only what could be verified and what could be substantiated, but she started shooting from the hip, and she had hurt a lot of people.
Of all the things she wrote about you, which one impacted you most?
Undoubtedly the brothel case.
You reacted very strongly to that story, freezing her bank accounts. In fact she was on her way to the bank to discuss her frozen accounts when the bomb went off that killed her. Walk me through what you were thinking.
I actually was in Germany, we were in a conference and I couldn’t fathom the reason for the story. It was inexplicable. It was a shock of course. When you are abroad you cannot react as much as you want to, to what is happening locally.
And the shock was even worse, because, she reported again the next day, that I had frequented this place again. The second time I was participating as a guest speaker in this conference. That is one of the instances where I realised that she was not finding substantive evidence to prove her stories. And obviously, you wonder why she is doing that. Why was she doing that? And the reason was her agenda: She never wanted and she didn't want Labour, the Labour Party, to be in government, to remain in government, to stay in government, and she did that forcefully.
On the brothel case
You maintain that the Acapulco [the name of the German brothel Cardona was alleged to have visited] story is a fabrication.
Yet, when the opportunity presented itself for you to provide the evidence that could have proven your innocence you did not?
We did. Actually we did.
You submitted the phone data?
Actually, no we didn't submit the phones. What happened was the court ruled in favour of collecting the evidence. And the court did collect the evidence.
It’s never seen the light of day, though.
You could publish it.
I cannot because it is one of the documents held by the court and I do not have access to it. And probably if I had access to it what you would have is some binary numbers which could mean something scientifically, but in our legal um, we would say they would need to be evidenced.
What was your first reaction when you found out that she had died?
I was at the ministry, I believe it was around 3 pm, maybe later. I couldn't believe what had happened. Because what was reported initially was that a bomb had exploded in the vicinity of the Bidnija area, and of course everybody was coming to the same conclusion, that it could be Daphne.
And, I remember walking out of my office, asking people ‘Listen, have you heard of what has happened?’
I wasn’t in a meeting or anything, I was working at the office, and asking ‘Listen guys, have you heard?’
Everybody had heard there was this bomb. It was reported on social media and on other platforms, and the first reaction was disbelief. Nobody could believe we could reach that stage.
On being a person of interest
And within a few hours of Daphne’s murder, you were among a few people who were summoned by an investigating magistrate.
So very soon after her murder it appears as though you became a person of interest. Why?
It was common sense. Had I been the inquiring magistrate I would have sent for myself, as in Chris Cardona.
What were you asked?
I wasn’t talked to by the magistrate. I went to the law courts and I never had the opportunity to be asked any questions in the inquiry stage.
On the Degiorgio brothers
A few months after Daphne’s murder, the Degiorgio brothers were charged with the material assassination. How do you know the Degiorgio brothers?
I had known them through my profession. I am a lawyer, by profession. I used to practice mainly in the criminal law courts. And I knew them from that.
Who is it that you know? Alfred or George?
I knew them both.
Do you remember how you first met them?
In court probably.
Would you meet them socially?
No. I would see them here and there. But meeting socially means phoning you up and agreeing to meet somewhere. We never had such agreements.
Did Alfred Degiorgio ever come to your ministry for a meeting?
You had also gone to an intimate bachelors party to which Alfred Degiorgio was a guest. It would appear as though they formed part of an inner circle that you were also part of.
Not at all. The thing is that at the time, we used to frequent a sports bar on Sundays to watch the Premier League (football) and one of the brothers used to also be there.
And then Alfred Degiorgio’s daughter started showing up at a government entity that falls…
I’ve never seen Alfred Degiorgio’s daughter.
So you have no knowledge that she worked in one of these entities you were responsible for?
I have knowledge because it was reported.
And, of course, there are schemes issued by government entities to have summer students, those who are attending sixth form level or university, to have a summer job, and apparently, she was one of the students who worked within one entity, within the ministry.
So you had nothing to do with her getting a job?
Then we heard in court that your number was found on a burner phone dumped at sea outside the Degiorgios’ hang-out. A burner phone, with limited contacts on it, is normally used by criminals to communicate with each other...
... To avoid interception. Why would your number be on a phone like that?
It wasn’t. This is false. This is all false. My number was never found either in a burner phone or dumped at sea.
How do you know this?
Because if it was, the police would have asked me. And they’ve never mentioned that. That doesn't mean that they haven’t found it. The police don’t always share evidence.
Ok, but how do we know that it was found?
It has been alleged.
But allegations need to be proven. Till now that allegation is not proven. Till now I can safely state that it is false. Because if it was then I’d know about it. I’ve never had a burner phone. I didn't even need to have a second line in my phone.
Let’s say it was found.
Hypothetically, that would be quite bad evidence in my case. It would reflect very badly on what I am saying now.
On Melvin Theuma
Melvin Theuma also told a courtroom this week, how the Degiorgio brothers had allegedly been overheard discussing, while they were in a van on their way back to prison...
... How they were going to name you as a party in the murder. How do you explain that?
Let's be a little bit factual on Melvin Theuma’s evidence. I wasn’t in the courtroom when Melvin Theuma gave evidence, so I know what he said through the reporting.
Till now what I am cognisant of is the fact that Melvin Theuma was recalling what other people told him. So as a fact, what Melvin Theuma, evidenced - testified in court - was not what he saw, but what other people told him.
Now clearly that means - there are many different levels of evidence in court. There is what is called circumstantial evidence which is evidence but needs to be...
I remember judge Galea Debono in his trials by jury, explaining them as a chain, that one ring, has to be attached to the other, in order to have circumstantial evidence pointing in one direction. In this case this is not circumstantial evidence. This is hearsay. You are recalling what you have heard form a third party. So hearsay, unless it is corroborated by clear unequivocal evidence, is just hearsay.
In this testimony, in what he testified, Melvin Theuma, said he heard from Yorgen Fenech or from some other people, that I was admitted to hospital, um, suffering from an overdose, after I heard of Daphne’s murder. That is hearsay but it could be easily proven by, for instance, asking for my medical records.
And, I am pretty sure that any hospital in Malta, abroad, wherever, would have medical records of an alleged overdose.
I mean nowadays, even if you go to hospital to extract a tooth they would keep that in your medical records. Is it possible that such a serious case like this would not be listed in hospital records.
I am prepared for you as Ivan Martin, a journalist with Times of Malta, to Repubblika, to civil society, to Jason Azzopardi, to, check my medical records, on my behalf. Because I am pretty sure this is a lie, because it never happened.
Medical records are evidence if submitted, they can also be tampered with…
But, Ivan, everything can be tampered with, but if we fall now with this conspiracy theory frame of mind on whatever Chris Cardona says; that Chris Cardona tampers all the evidence, all the mobiles, all the networks, Deutsche Telekoms. He tampers even evidence in hospitals in Malta.
I mean if we arrive at that then we shouldn’t be talking to each other.
Melvin Theuma - so you said that what he told court is hearsay…
... And Melvin Theuma needs to be very, very careful. Because he is not a normal, um, witness. Melvin Theuma is a state witness.
In Maltese we say he has a presidential pardon. If he doesn't tell the truth, he can lose that pardon.
So let's be very careful how to report now what Melvin Theuma is saying. Because it is good that we are saying, that Melvin Theuma said he was told that €350,000 was passed through an intermediary.
On the man alleged to have paid murderers on his behalf
How do you know Toni il-Biglee?
Toni il-Biglee, was an officer with the police force, with the Special Assignment Group.
He was assigned at the time as a protection officer for a number of VIPs, including presidents, heads of state, and so on. I probably met him at court, as an officer, as a policeman.
We got along because he supports Liverpool, so do I. He started to come to my office, to accompany me in public spaces. You know?
So he became a canvasser of yours?
A canvasser, a friend. He’s a close friend.
Did you help him secure his job at the Freeport?
When he finished his police term, which is 25 years I believe, he decided to stop being a police officer, and he applied to be accepted as an officer in the Freeport. I didn't have anything to do with his recruitment.
And it has been alleged that he, acting on your behalf, facilitated a payment to the Degiorgios.
This is completely false. It is not true, we have never done anything like that.
On claims of a 'frame up'
It's also been alleged, that the payment, could be a payment in kind. In a note that was submitted by Yorgen Fenech to the police.
That is not Melvin Theuma, Again, we go back to the plot which was written, which was stage managed in order to have Chris Cardona the centre of the investigation into the murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia.
You’ve said time and again that you are being framed. Who is 'framing you'?
I can’t know.
Who do you think is framing you?
I shouldn’t think who is framing me. That is part of the investigation by the police and I am pretty sure that they have gone into great depths, in order to see what the plot is and how it was managed.
Do you think Keith Schembri is framing you?
I don’t think that Keith Schembri could arrive to that point.
What have you done about this attempted frame up, that you claim happened?
I couldn't do anything actually.
At the time I had suspended myself from my position as minister. I had asked my prime minister to accept my suspension. A couple of hours, or days [later] I can’t really remember. There was a night Cabinet meeting, and the letter cropped up during discussions for the amnesty which was applied for by Yorgen Fenech.
First of all, no one told me about this letter. Probably because the police had found it after interviewing me for a couple of minutes the Saturday before.
I remember that in the morning I was at home, and some colleagues of mine from Cabinet, ministers, had phoned me and had told me about this letter. and they told me ‘listen Chris, be careful because this reached a stage now, in which, these guys are actually, putting pen to paper'. So it's not just an agreement of minds, but a physical letter, which was found by the police, that is why I told you it was found by the police.
On allegations he was involved in Caruana Galizia's murder
Did you play any role in the plot to murder Daphne Caruana Galizia?
Were you aware of a plot?
Absolutely not. These are questions I had been asked by inspector Arnaud months ago.
There seem to be all of these little threads that keep leading to you from different avenues. From different places, be it the claim of the phone, the claim of a payment, or payment in kind, the note, the Degiorgio brothers mentioning you. It is natural for people to start to wonder whether or not you did play a role in this. And your argument seems to be that you are being framed, yet you say you have no idea who you think could be behind framing you.
On Keith Schembri
When did you first meet Keith Schembri?
I think we were at University together. But I don't recall Keith Schembri. But I started to work closely with Keith Schembri in preparing the [Labour Party] manifesto for elections.
And what did you think of him?
Keith is a natural talent in business. I mean he’s an entrepreneur. His enterprising spirit is exceptional. Any government needs someone like Keith, because Keith knows the business, he knows how enterprise works, and that is very difficult to find.
There are a lot of threads that keep pointing to his possible involvement in the murder as well, his name keeps cropping up. Do you think he could have played a part in this?
I don’t think he did anything which has to do with this.
So you don’t think he played a part in this. Yorgen Fenech appears to have told police that he received a note, naming you and detailing your involvement, from Keith. Do you believe that?
How can you prove that? I believe what is proved. How can I believe something which till now has no substantial evidence supporting it. There is no proof that Keith wrote that letter. He denied it, he kept denying it, till today. Um, Do you think that Keith Schembri wrote this letter? I mean how could we know?
It's my duty to look into it as a journalist.
On Yorgen Fenech
How do you know Yorgen Fenech?
I knew Yorgen Fenech, probably when he was still a young boy with his dad and his grandfather. I don't really know him all that well.
But I remember his grandfather, Tumas, I remember George with whom I had a very close relationship. And then I remember Yorgen involved in the Birkirkara football club, which is my home town, and I remember him being part of the management and contributing to Birkirkara football club. Like most people in politics, I was invited to his wedding, and I did attend his wedding.
Did you go to other gatherings with him, lunches, parties?
No, no. We had one lunch actually in the past seven years. We had met for a lunch.
You and other Cabinet ministers?
No, it was a business meeting, in which I was asked to intervene as a minister, because the issue fell within my portfolio. So it was him and other businessmen.
Did you ever discuss Daphne Caruana Galizia with Yorgen Fenech?
Did you ever discuss Daphne Caruana Galizia with Keith Schembri?
No… You mean in the context of the murder?
Of course, with Keith Schembri we discussed Daphne Caruana Galizia a number of times. I mean she was one of the most vociferous opponents of our government. So she was, yes, one of the people who had to be watched, in the sense of critics. I mean any critic of a government has to be watched.
What do you mean 'watched'?
Cognisant of what they are saying. Not dismissed, not ‘So what, let her say what she wants’ - that is not the approach. If you have a hands-on government that wants to keep hearing what people are saying outside your own silo, you need to hear what even your critics are saying.
She was a harsh critic of yours.
She was one of the harshest critics you could ever have.
She was a thorn in your side.
She was not a thorn in my side, in anybody’s side, she was a pillar of democracy.
On lawyer David Gatt
Another thing that was mentioned in court is an allegation that a close associate of yours, David Gatt, met the Degiorgios and threatened to have them killed if you were named as a party to the murder.
I believe David Gatt is denying that. David Gatt is a lawyer who had for some time, an office in Birkirkara, because he is also from Birkirkara, and when he became a lawyer he needed some space to practice his private practice. I had agreed with him, for David Gatt to have one room within my offices in Birkirkara and that is it.
So are you friends with David Gatt?
I’ve known David Gatt since childhood at St Aloysius (school) and as an inspector in the police force, as well.
On his political future
So what comes next for you now? You are still deputy leader of the Labour party, you’ve got this hanging over you.
What comes next for me, I mean I am deputy leader of a party which I consider to be my second family. The delegates voted me as a deputy leader and I would decide, um, whether keeping my deputy leadership post or not, always in the best interest of the party. The party is not part of the government institutions, not part of the executive, so any decision I would take would be a decision in the best interest of the Labour Party.
It looks like your political career is done.
[Laughs] Haha. Yes that’s what my family says all the time. Correct, but...
How do you feel about that?
Politicians have a sell-by date, so you can’t extend your existence in politics after you have expired. Definitely as a minister, I have given all it takes for the economy of the country, for businesses, enterprise, innovation, for ideas, to be put into practice, for new legislation. I matured as a minister, and I believed that I had reached that stage in late 2019, which is six months ago, a little bit more.
So your peak, your expiration, as you put it, coincided with...
With Joseph Muscat’s peak, and also with your name cropping up in the murder investigation.
Do you think it was that which ended your political career? Many would argue that it appears as though it was that.
No, no, not at all... I used to say this is my last election. 2017 was my last run as a campaigner. I had said that before Daphne’s murder. And of course I had spoken to my family and I had given my word to my family. The time has come for me to be more present at home. To participate more in our family life.