• More than €6.5 million spent on secret operations against opponents;
  • Ex-minister faced claims of €3.2 million kickback on golden passport sale to Russian;
  • Chris Fearne: 'A disgusting act'; Carmen Ciantar: 'It's devastating';
  • Steward funded overseas campaign to spy on employee and adversary;
  • Intelligence firm denies handling fake documents

A campaign to smear former health minister Chris Fearne with “fake” corruption claims was funded by Steward Health Care, leaked corporate records show. 

The campaign against Fearne was part of a wider €6.5 million secret operation authorised by Steward to target their perceived opponents in Malta and abroad. 

Practices included using bank records, accessing sensitive phone data, and planting “fake” media stories about corruption among Maltese officials. 

The operations were coordinated by senior Steward officials who corresponded regularly with private spies at two London-based intelligence firms called Audere International and CT Group, according to emails, encrypted messages, and financial records. 

The records were obtained by OCCRP and shared with Times of Malta and the Boston Globe

Leaked files show how Steward allocated some of the costs for these operations to its budget for running the St Luke’s, Karin Grech and Gozo hospitals. 

Fearne, who is facing fraud charges in connection with the annulled Steward deal, appears to have been one of the key targets of the Malta operation. 

The ex-health minister and his former chief of staff Carmen Ciantar last year slammed the unknown “dark forces” behind the “fake claims,” which included allegations of an illicit €3.2 million payment. 

Steward funded the campaign against Fearne and Ciantar.Steward funded the campaign against Fearne and Ciantar.

Fearne and Ciantar have urged the police to uncover who was behind the claims. 

Speaking to reporters, Fearne said the alleged disinformation campaign against him was an “attack on the very integrity and wellbeing of the Maltese State.”

“If confirmed it would not be coincidental that this disgusting act was carried out at a time when I was rigorously insisting on Steward fulfilling their contractual obligations,” Fearne said, adding that when the allegations emerged last year, he had asked Maltese police to investigate the "fake documents".

Asked for comment on whether police had indeed investigated the claims against Fearne and Ciantar, a Maltese police spokesperson said: “following police investigations, no evidence was found about the alleged matter that could lead to a criminal prosecution.”

‘I am truly exasperated’

Although Fearne initially backed Steward taking over the contract from Vitals Global Healthcare in February 2018, the relationship appears to have soured thereafter. 

That same year, Steward Malta CEO Armin Ernst hit out at Fearne when payments under the government contract were held up. 

“I am truly getting exasperated,” Ernst wrote to Fearne in October 2018. 

“It is not possible to run the operations of an organization when … revenue transfer from GoM [Government of Malta] become a matter of guess work of what, when and how much will be received. Is there anything else going on I should know about????,” Ernst said in the e-mail. 

An email from Steward Malta boss Armin Ernst and Chris Fearne.An email from Steward Malta boss Armin Ernst and Chris Fearne.

A minute later, Ernst forwarded the e-mail with the words: “Just as an FYI...” to Keith Schembri, chief of staff to former prime minister Joseph Muscat. 

An investigation by the Auditor General found Schembri and ex-health minister Konrad Mizzi frequently dealt with Steward behind Fearne’s back. 

Relations soured between Steward boss Armin Ernst, right, and former health minister Chris Fearne, left. Photo: Mark Zammit CordinaRelations soured between Steward boss Armin Ernst, right, and former health minister Chris Fearne, left. Photo: Mark Zammit Cordina

By 2021, senior Steward staff contemplated suing Fearne and Malta’s government in the US, where they planned to allege extortion and solicitation of bribes, a leaked email shows. 

“This is NOT an idle threat,” wrote Steward senior executive Mark Rich in an email to its Maltese lawyers in May 2021. “We are literally prepared to drop a case in US Federal Court naming Fearne and others as bad players… just launching the case will put [Malta’s government] in the penalty box.”

‘Project Albacore, Bluefin'

No lawsuit followed, however, Ernst appeared to have kept tabs on Fearne, and operations codenamed 'Project Albacore' and 'Project Bluefin' were launched, e-mails and documents show. 

Steward contemplated suing Fearne and other government officials in the US.Steward contemplated suing Fearne and other government officials in the US.

In a December 2021 e-mail, Ernst flagged a media report claiming irregularities linked to the Foundation for Medical Services, which fell under Fearne and Ciantar’s remit. 

“Attached a report just published that for first time hints at some significant irregularity within Chris Fearne’s realm.

“There have always been rumors of a romantic relationship between him and Carmen Ciantar,” Ernst wrote in the e-mail. 

That same month, Steward directed its law firm, Quinn Emanuel, to hire CT Group, an intelligence firm whose staff includes the UK government’s former counter-terrorism chief. 

In July 2022, CT Group pledged to “deploy into the public domain information about the main opponent of the Client’s concession in Malta” in a commercial proposal obtained by OCCRP. The aim was to identify “improper” behaviour and leak it anonymously to Maltese media.

CT Group declined to reveal the identity of the “main opponent” when asked by reporters.

Ernst appears to have taken an interest in unearthing dirt on Fearne.Ernst appears to have taken an interest in unearthing dirt on Fearne.

But later that year, CT Group passed on what it said was a bank wire transfer record showing €3.2 million moving to an account held by Carmen Ciantar’s daughter.

The payment, dated November 2019, was purportedly sent by a former business partner of Igor Levitin, a longstanding advisor to Russian president Vladimir Putin.

An internal document titled 'Malta: Abuse of Passport Scheme' alleged that Fearne used his ministerial position to lobby to issue a Maltese passport to Levitin’s brother as part of a quid pro quo for the payment.

This briefing document was drawn up by CT Group to lend credence to the claims.This briefing document was drawn up by CT Group to lend credence to the claims.

Data embedded in the document suggests it was authored by CT Groups’ former director Will Crawford. 

In October 2022, Ernst sent the bank transfer record and the document alleging abuse in the passport scheme to Steward's UK law firm, Quinn Emanuel. 

CT Group proposed deploying information 'about the main opponent' of the concession.CT Group proposed deploying information 'about the main opponent' of the concession.

Lawyers for Audere denied that their client had engaged in unlawful conduct, but declined to respond to detailed allegations and questions, citing confidentiality. They said Audere “takes its legal and regulatory compliance obligations seriously and acts in accordance with the same.” 

CT Group said it is “committed to and complies with all laws and regulations in all jurisdictions in which it works.” It added, “Your email contains serious false allegations,” although it did not dispute specific allegations or respond directly to reporters’ questions. 

‘Clumsy and inexpert fake’

Six months after Ernst passed on the details about the alleged wire transfer, the records and briefing document prepared by Crawford were shared with Matthew Caruana Galizia, the director of the Daphne Caruana Galizia Foundation, via an intermediary.  

Weekly update calls were scheduled for 'Project Albacore.'Weekly update calls were scheduled for 'Project Albacore.'

Caruana Galizia contacted the Austrian bank named in the record and the former business partner of Levitin, who purportedly sent the funds. Both said it was a forgery. 

Sources told Times of Malta that an investigation into the claims by local authorities was unable to uncover any proof to substantiate the purported €3.2 million transfer.  

Alex Cobham, chief executive of the UK-based NGO Tax Justice Network, called the document a “clumsy and inexpert” fake.

“While the document claims to relate to a transfer made on 22 November 2019, the SWIFT code (specifically, the message input reference) indicates a transfer made on 22 February 2018.”

The bank transfer record eventually surfaced last summer on websites elsewhere, including in Ukraine, where it was subsequently picked up by the media in Malta. 

A copy of the bank transfer document alleging the €3.2 million transfer.A copy of the bank transfer document alleging the €3.2 million transfer.

It is unclear whether CT Group, Steward, or Quinn Emanuel were aware the document was fake.

A taxing campaign 

Leaked files show how Steward allocated costs for its spy operations to its Malta budget, which was primarily funded by taxpayers under the €90-million-euro per year hospitals contract.

Soon after CT Group began investigating Fearne for Steward in early 2022, the UK spy firm billed £207,000 (€244,000) to the US company’s Maltese subsidiary, Steward Malta Management Limited, an invoice shows. 

An example of a CT Group bill being invoiced to Steward Malta.An example of a CT Group bill being invoiced to Steward Malta.

That company’s leaked bank statements for previous years and an internal budget approved by Steward’s board in February 2023 show that the subsidiary’s main source of income was the Maltese government. 

The records also showed how bills from CT Group and Audere totalling $2.9 million (€2.7 million) for 2022 had been “allocated to Steward International (via Malta).” A further $1 million (€900,000) “place holder” was budgeted “via Malta” for upcoming intelligence work in 2023. 

Under instruction from Steward’s general counsel Herb Holtz, Steward initially paid Audere’s bills from its US headquarters, then charged costs back to Malta, financial records show.

In May 2022, Steward’s senior executives met in Dallas to discuss what are called “intercompany charges”, costs incurred by one subsidiary later reallocated to another for accounting purposes, including Audere, fees of more than $700,000 (€652,000) for intelligence fees paid for by US-based Steward Healthcare LLC.

But a budget for Steward’s international division approved by its board the following February shows how those Audere fees had been reimbursed "via Malta".

'Heinous public lies'

Ciantar whose daughter was named on the "fake" record, described the experience as “devastating, both professionally and personally.”

“You can imagine the horrible sensation of facing these heinous public lies without knowing who is behind them,” she told reporters. 

Ciantar and her daughter Celine were targeted by the campaign.Ciantar and her daughter Celine were targeted by the campaign.

CT Group told OCCRP that allegations it handled fabricated documents were “false” and said it “is confident the intelligence sourced is [sic] this project is genuine and accurate".

Quinn Emanuel said the firm “has no knowledge of – and certainly played no role in – any of the alleged activities you describe” and declined to comment further, citing attorney/client privilege. 

Steward Health Care did not respond to a request for comment about Fearne.

‘Operation Pudding’ 

Fearne was not the only person of interest to Steward. 

Documents show the company enlisted Audere to find information on its own staff. 

An internal report dated April 2023 included compromising personal information extracted from the company device of a former senior employee Steward worried might leak information to its auditor. 

Identifying the employee by the codename 'Pudding', the report alleged that he had solicited a sex worker, a possible criminal offence, the report noted. The report’s author was an Audere director, its metadata reveals.

Separate leaked correspondence from earlier that year shows how a compromising photo of the employee, who is not being named owing to the personal nature of the information Audere compiled about him, was shared with Audere’s founder Charles Blackmore, after he requested a photo of “Pudding”.

Herb Holtz described Audere as being on a 'spare no expenses mission' in this leaked voice note (mp3 file)

In other correspondence outlining a possible approach to the employee by an “agent,” Blackmore discussed putting the plan to “Herb” - an apparent reference to Holtz. Other correspondence from Audere staff shows that “HH” had engaged the intelligence firm.

Steward's probe of the employee appears to have been prompted by concerns he might leak damaging information about a possible several hundred million dollars hole in the company's budget to Crowe, an external auditor for a real estate deal Steward was involved in.

Audere said when contacted that the “false” allegations were “of the most serious kind that could be levelled against an investigations firm and industry professionals. 

Another target of the operations was British businessman Fraser Perring. 

Perring’s company, Viceroy Research, makes money by “short selling” stocks — betting that the share prices of other companies will go down, and then publishing negative information which further depresses the prices. 

Viceroy had just released an investigation into Steward’s relationship with Medical Properties Trust, its biggest stakeholder, alleging Steward had fraudulently overvalued its Colombian assets by around €46 million in a sale to Medical Properties Trust.

Steward appears to have enlisted Audere to keep tabs on Perring soon after. 

The assignment was led by Monika Rihma, an Audere director Blackmore described in leaked communications as being “closest” to Steward’s general counsel, Herb Holtz.

Holtz did not respond to question, and Steward did not respond directly to questions on the intelligence work.

However, in a comment to the Boston Globe, Steward said, “While general counsel and as a private lawyer since then, Holtz has neither recommended nor sanctioned any illegal or unethical activity.”

Lawyers for Audere, Blackmore, and Rihma called the allegations “false” and “seriously defamatory” but declined to dispute specific claims, citing confidentiality. 

'Strange disturbances'

Perring told reporters he started to notice strange disturbances at home: his CCTV system stopped working, and he came home to unexpectedly find his door unlocked and computer open. He filed incident reports with the police, though no further action was taken. 

A surveillance report reveals how a five-man team of security professionals staked out Perring’s home in rural England over six days in March 2023, shortly after Viceroy published its investigation into Steward.

The report was authored by Greyprism, a security company founded by two veterans former members of the UK’s Special Forces. It documented the location of entrances, exits, and CCTV cameras at Perring’s property, and revealed that a tracker was placed on his car. 

Greyprism’s report doesn’t disclose who its client was but leaked documents show that the report was in the possession of Audere, which had been working for Steward for more than five years on assignments connected to the Malta hospital deal. 

A clip of the surveillance carried out on Fraser Perring through his lounge window.

An account called viceroyleaks soon appeared on Twitter (since renamed X) and began posting negative slurs about Perring and Viceroy’s research. “This account's sole purpose is to expose #fraud, #scam and #insidertrading of Fraser Perring and Viceroy … YOU WON'T GET AWAY WITH IT!,” the account posted on March 8, 2023.

Perring later reported the viceroyleaks account to police, who recorded a crime of malicious communications. 

Leaked correspondence shows how Audere’s Blackmore screened the website’s account’s posts before they went out. In one, Blackmore said he had sent the contemplated post to “HH” for review — an apparent reference to Herb Holtz. 

Documents handled by Audere detailed other confidential personal information about Perring.

The information included Perring’s HSBC bank account number and balance, transactions going back over the previous five years —  including from his Swiss private banker — and the numbers, times, lengths, and costs of his recent phone calls. 

It is unclear how the confidential information was obtained, but Perring told OCCRP that the information was “100 per cent accurate” and that he had never kept records of the information or shared his login details. 

A document detailing the information also recommended “researching” Perring’s banker’s account which “may prove advantageous in the likelihood it is being deployed as a conduit for VICEROY or other entities.”

Viceroy's Fraser Perring was one of the surveillance targets.Viceroy's Fraser Perring was one of the surveillance targets.

Lawyers for Audere, Blackmore, and Rihma called the allegations “false” and “seriously defamatory” but declined to dispute specific claims, citing confidentiality. 

A lawyer for Greyprism said its client “acts in accordance with the law” and “would not, and has not, acted in the manner alleged and in breach of its legal obligations.”

Citing confidentiality, data protection, and legal privilege, the lawyer said Greyprism could not discuss specific cases, but said the company “does not conduct unlawful physical or technical surveillance.”

This article was produced with support from OCCRP and the Daphne Caruana Galizia Foundation.

Note: This story has been updated to more accurately reflect the nature of Crowe's relationship with Steward. 

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