Updated 4pm with full report
Keith Schembri’s testimony before the Public Accounts Committee was cut short on Tuesday when his lawyers threatened to open a constitutional court case following a demand for a perjury investigation filed by the committee’s PN members following last week’s grilling.
The PN PAC members are alleging false testimony before the PAC and the public inquiry into the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia by former Finance Minister Edward Scicluna, former deputy police commissioner Silvio Valletta, and Keith Schembri himself.
In his testimony a week ago, Schembri rubbished Scicluna’s suggestion of a “kitchen cabinet” that operated outside of cabinet, saying that Scicluna would have been involved in all major decisions in his role as Finance Minister.
Schembri also disputed Valletta’s claim to the Caruana Galizia public inquiry that the former chief aide to Joseph Muscat had intervened to stop the police from questioning Electrogas chief Yorgen Fenech over revelations that Fenech owned the secret company 17 Black.
The hour-long session, held in fits and starts, opened with Schembri’s lawyer Edward Gatt requesting a ruling from the Speaker over whether Schembri’s testimony should be suspended while the perjury investigation is concluded.
Following a pause for the committee to consult its standing orders, the session resumed with PAC chairman Darren Carabott denying Gatt’s request, pointing to a clause in the committee’s guidelines saying that only members of the committee can request a ruling from the speaker.
A follow-up request by Gatt, asking for an individual member of the committee to repeat his initial appeal in their name, prompted a second pause in proceedings.
No individual member of the committee was willing to take up the mantle, despite gentle protestations by PL PAC member Glenn Bedingfield for the request to be adopted by the committee as a whole.
It was at this point that Gatt stepped up his efforts to halt the questioning, instructing Schembri to invoke his right to silence and saying that the case would be taken to the constitutional court, saying he refused to accept that Carabott could act as “a gatekeeper for the speaker”.
Constitutional case 'within days'
Carabott, clearly keen to move on with the questioning, dismissed Gatt’s argument, saying that the only situation in which a witness can invoke their right to silence was when they could incriminate themselves through their reply.
The only question of the entire sitting followed, with Carabott asking how Schembri knew that the secret company Egrant had never been used, a claim he made during last week’s testimony.
Following his lawyer’s instructions, Schembri refused to reply, saying that a constitutional case will be filed “within the next two days” and that he would not be replying to any questions.
The sitting was adjourned while the committee requests a ruling from the speaker.
Schembri has previously answered questions from the PAC but has often said he could not remember details, including whether he had actually authorised an audit firm to open his Panama company Tillgate Ltd.
That company was due to receive money from 17 Black, a secret company owned by Fenech, who was one of the Electrogas shareholders and is now facing trial for his alleged involvement in the murder of Caruana Galizia.
Committee hearing adjourned
3.04pm We’re at an impasse. Carabott says he will refer Schembri's refusal to answer to the speaker. The committee hearing is adjourned and Schembri and his lawyers leave the room.
3.03pm Carabott asks whether Schembri is refusing to answer because he will incriminate himself. Schembri stands firm, saying that he is not replying in light of the constitutional court case.
First question (one hour in)
3pm Carabott’s first question comes almost an hour into the sitting. He refers to Schembri’s statement last week that Egrant was never used. How does Schembri know this? Schembri says he will not reply in light of the constitutional case which will open “within the next two days”.
Right to silence?
2.59pm Carabott counters by saying that the PAC’s guidelines say that the only situation in which a witness cannot reply is if they are likely to incriminate themselves. He plans on going ahead with the questioning.
2.57pm A clearly unhappy Gatt says that they will take the issue to the constitutional court, describing Carabott as a “gatekeeper for the speaker”. He is objecting to the fact that a police report was filed by PAC members and says that Schembri will not be replying to questions.
2.53pm We're back but no member of the committee is willing to repeat Gatt’s request in their name, so the sitting is set to continue. Bedingfield timidly suggests that a request should be made in the entire committee’s name, not by an individual member.
Step forward Glenn Bedingfield
2.44pm Labour MP Glenn Bedingfield duly obliges. He feels that this new request should be discussed among the PAC members. The session is temporarily suspended again while they do so.
Session must continue
2.42pm The request to suspend Schembri’s testimony is denied. Carabott points to a clause in the standing orders which says that only a member of the PAC can request a ruling from the speaker. Gatt responds by making a new request. He is now asking whether any of the committee members would like to make the same request. What will the Labour MPs do now?
2.37pm Schembri and his lawyers have returned to the room after that brief suspension. The session resumes.
2.23pm The session is temporarily suspended while Carabott examines the standing orders to evaluate whether the request is a valid one.
2.17pm The committee meeting has begun with a bang. Keith Schembri's lawyer is questioning a criminal report that PAC chairman Darren Carabott and two other MPs made concerning perjury.
For context: Former finance minister Edward Scicluna told the Daphne Caruana Galizia inquiry that there was a 'kitchen cabinet' of a select group of people that made decisions on big projects - such as this one. Keith Schembri claimed last week that that wasn't true.
Schembri’s lawyer Edward Gatt asks chairman Darren Carabott whether a police report for perjury filed by the PAC’s PN members was filed in their personal capacity or on behalf of the PAC. Gatt is requesting a ruling by the speaker for Schembri’s testimony to be suspended pending the outcome of the report.
Meanwhile, outside parliament
2.12pm The Public Accounts Committee was due to start at 2pm but it seems they are running slightly behind schedule. Meanwhile, a banner erected yesterday opposite parliament buildings protesting against another case - the death on a construction site of a young man - remains in place. You can read more about that story here.
What happened last time?
2.08pm While we wait for today’s hearing to start, let’s have a look at what Schembri said during last week’s session, where he:
- Claimed that he “cannot remember” instructing his financial advisors to open a secret Panama company for him;
- Said that his Panama company was set up for his future business plans once he left politics;
- Couldn’t remember whether it was he or Yorgen Fenech who initiated the conversation about going into business together;
- Described the fact that his and Konrad Mizzi’s Panama companies were opened in tandem as a “coincidence”;
- Couldn’t remember speaking to either Joseph Muscat or Konrad Mizzi when Times of Malta revealed that 17 Black was owned by Yorgen Fenech;
- Denied a claim made by ex-police commissioner Silvio Valletta that he intervened to stop police questioning Fenech on 17 Black;
- Denied there was a so-called 'kitchen cabinet' responsible for some of the top decisions of the Muscat administration.
Keith Schembri arrives
2.04pm Hello and thank you for joining us. Keith Schembri has just arrived at parliament for his third day of questions from MPs investigating the Electrogas power station deal.