Murder suspect Yorgen Fenech and Revenue Commissioner Marvin Gaerty exchanged messages about a story written by “that witch”, an inquiry board heard on Friday.
Confronted about the message during the public inquiry into journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia’s death, Gaerty claimed not to know who “the witch” Fenech had referred to was.
The journalist’s detractors, including political figures, often derided her publicly as “the Bidnija witch”.
The February 2019 exchange centered on foreign holdings that Fenech told Gaerty he had paid taxes on in 2016, and which “the witch” first wrote about in 2017.
Caruana Galizia had first made a cryptic reference to Fenech’s company 17 Black in February 2017. She was blown up by a car bomb outside her home eight months later.
Fenech has been charged with complicity in the murder. He denies the charges.
Caruana Galizia family lawyer Therese Comodini Cachia told the court that Gaerty replied to Fenech’s message by telling him not to worry or play into anyone’s hands [Tpaxxi lil ħadd].
'I never broke the law'
Confronted by the lawyer about his familiarity with Fenech, Gaerty struck an apologetic tone, claiming he [Gaerty] was going through a difficult time having just lost his father when the messages were exchanged.
“I never accepted any gifts from Yorgen Fenech. I never went to eat with Yorgen Fenech. I am a friendly person,” Gaerty said by way of explanation about the familiarity in the messages.
Gaerty assured the inquiry that he had always acted within the parameters of the law.
Gaerty has been investigated by the police over a separate exchange dating back to 2014, when the tax chief informed Fenech he would not be taking criminal action against his father George over a VAT infringement.
The inquiry board also pushed Gaerty to explain his familiarity with the murder suspect.
“Maybe I was out of line," he insisted.
Asked point blank if such familiarity was normal, Gaerty said: “I made a mistake."
Gaerty also revealed that Fenech had offered him a job but that he turned the offer down.
He said it was common for him to help people with their tax issues, pointing out that he had even assisted Caruana Galizia on such matters.
Comodini Cachia questioned Gaerty on the procedures for declaring income made via a foreign-owned company.
Gaerty confirmed that if a declaration is made, the person in question would have to confirm his ownership of the company.
Comodini Cachia asked the witness if this could lead to a situation where the Tax Department ended up with company ownership information that the police did not have.
“It could be," Gaerty conceded.
A focus on tax evasion
Gaerty said his department’s focus was on tax evasion.
“I gave direction for everything to be investigated, even the Panama Papers."
Asked if the investigations were actually carried out, he assured the inquiry board that this was the case.
Gaerty said one of the obstacles they faced was a lack of cooperation by foreign jurisdictions.
“What interests us is that the tax compliance unit investigated," judge Michael Mallia said.
Gaerty told the inquiry that the investigations into different companies could be at different stages of completeness.
There were other authorities like the FIAU that had a lot more powers when it came to obtaining certain information about companies, he added.
The FIAU spent two years struggling to trace who was behind 17 Black, sending a report to the police in 2018 identifying Fenech as its owner.
Asked whether authorities like the FIAU and Tax Department exchanged information, Gaerty admitted there were certain hurdles in place, such as needing the prime minister's approval to share certain information.
“You mean the police could be investigating corruption and you have no obligation to give it to them?" the lawyer challenged him.
“God forbid,” Gaerty replied.
He argued that other entities knew the tax authorities were investigating the Panama Papers, so they could ask for the information they needed.
The revenue commissioner said he would not necessarily know what cases and requests for information were being handled by the tax compliance unit, which falls under his remit.
Gaerty was originally meant to testify about the tax status of companies and individuals mentioned in the Panama Papers leak and Caruana Galizia’s blog.
However, legal wrangling about the legality of such testimony meant that he did not give the inquiry information about specific companies.
Whilst lawyers for the tax department argued that Gaerty could only testify if given clearance by the prime minister according to law, the state advocate argued that the government was not impeding the commissioner’s testimony.
At the end of the sitting, an agreement was reached to whittle down the list of information being requested to the companies and individuals most relevant to the inquiry.
Gaerty will continue testifying on March 12.