Keith Schembri is finally facing the music. Maybe not the entire opera about a career coloured by financial crime. Just the first bars of an overdue overture.
We’ve spent the last five years finger-bashing the evidence released in the public domain, shaming our institutions for not moving against him. There have been multiple citizen initiatives in court demanding investigations, some of which are still ongoing. There have been international press reporting, street protests, a raft of defamation suits, each another front in the war for the truth.
The European Parliament debate last Thursday reminds us that the world is watching us. The world is curious to see the fate of Schembri but that’s not what the biggest issue is. What’s on trial right now is our ability, if we have it, of dealing with financial crime, if we can be trusted to process the money of the world, if we can again become a respected member of the international community of law-abiding states.
The evidence coming out in court tells us more than what Schembri and his gang did or did not do. It also tells us how weak this country has been dealing with it.
Schembri denies any wrongdoing and he is innocent until proven guilty. But bear with me, if you can, and let us, for the sake of argument, go with the state’s case against him.
As apologists for the Labour Party are fond of insisting, Schembri’s career as a long suspected serial fraudster, forger, tax dodger and pocket liner started before he came to political power in 2013. How, then, was he allowed to take a seat in the most powerful office in the land?
The short answer is because Joseph Muscat put him there: Schembri had the skill set he required. He still mocks the skills set of Schembri’s predecessor, Edgar Galea Curmi. Lawrence Gonzi chose a social worker to run his office, Muscat told a tribunal recently. He mouthed ‘social worker’ with the sort of contempt you’d be justified to feel if I volunteered to try my hand at neurosurgery.
Apologists say Schembri’s reputation was unimpeachable in 2013. Really?
If that’s true then our intelligence services missed what he was up to. Before anyone is given keys to the secrets of the state, there needs to be a process of security clearance that does not only depend on the official record. It should also refer to intelligence and reasonable suspicion.
I have not heard anyone in politics propose a reform of the security vetting processes for political appointees. The rest of the world wonders.
Giving evidence in court this past week, police officers quoted liberally from two inquiry reports prepared by two magistrates. Under cross-examination the police admitted that the experts hired for the inquiries had more resources, skills and equipment to enable them to reach their conclusions than the police possessed when they reviewed the evidence.
Before anyone is given keys to the secrets of the state, there needs to be a process of security clearance
Now understand that the magisterial inquiries started on the back of Simon Busuttil’s complaints when, in 2017, he was frustrated beyond words at the inaction of the police on the back of FIAU investigations they allowed to gather dust.
The crimes that have been studied by the inquiries, therefore, are only those Busuttil got wind of sitting in his office in Pietà without the benefit of the tools the law gives the police.
The police waited four years for magistrates working part-time to conclude these investigations before moving to prosecute. And they had even less resources than the magistrates to polish their case off.
This means that, necessarily, we are only scratching the surface here. The police described Zenith’s Matthew Pace as a “professional money launderer”. And, yet, he’s only facing charges for doing a job for Schembri. And not all jobs we know of.
In June 2018, I reported on my website that Schembri received over $430,000 in payments in January 2015 from unexplained sources. Documentation held by Pace’s firm does not include any traces of the provenance of these funds, nor that any verification has been made of their provenance in spite of the fact that Schembri was at the time a politically exposed person as chief of staff to the prime minister.
The money Schembri received, arrived into his accounts five weeks after a secret trip to Baku, Azerbaijan. There has been no magisterial inquiry into these payments. Does that mean that they’ll never be investigated and that if any wrongdoing has been committed, no prosecution can be expected? Does Busuttil (or do you, private citizen?) need to file a court complaint for something to happen maybe four years from now?
Here’s another one I reported on in May 2018. A company owned by Schembri was awarded two huge plots of land in the Bulebel industrial estate days before Muscat called a general election in 2017. The lease was agreed after the government had already decided to call an early election but it was kept a secret until it was exposed in 2018. Is anyone looking into this?
Of course, this is just what I managed to find out. There could be so much more, if anyone bothers to look.
Are our institutions really working or do they still depend on pressure from journalists and activists to work on cases circumstances do not allow them to avoid?
The world is watching. It can’t be liking what it’s seeing.