Joseph Muscat insists he will never “ditch” his old friend and former chief of staff Keith Schembri, despite his alleged attempts to cover up the murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia.
The former prime minister insists he was not aware Schembri was relaying information to murder suspect Yorgen Fenech.
“Time and the course [of affairs] will tell us what his role was in all these things. And I’m not going to judge him in advance. What is sure is that in Daphne’s case, investigators never, in any way, flagged him to me. Never… I’m not the jury in all this. If he did it or not, I paid the price,” Muscat tells Times of Malta in the second part of an extensive interview recorded last Tuesday.
Muscat resigned in January 2020, shortly after Schembri was arrested in connection with Caruana Galizia’s murder.
Since then, Schembri has been arraigned on a series of money laundering charges.
The former prime minister says he had cut off contact with Schembri for a while but reconnected with him when he became aware of his ill health.
“I believe that Keith did several good things. I will allow justice to take its course, he is being investigated. I will definitely not ditch a person I know in this situation, knowing what he is going through. I might be in the wrong, I might be in the right. But I will definitely not ditch him.”
His call comes as a number of Labour Party exponents have called for Muscat to be ejected from the PL in the wake of a damning public inquiry into Caruana Galizia’s murder.
Muscat rejected suggestions that he refused to take action against both Schembri and former minister Konrad Mizzi because they had potentially compromising information about him. Both men have claimed they had legitimate reasons for having secretly opened offshore structures while in office.
“Did Konrad and Keith tell me the truth? I think time will tell.”
Muscat could not explain how a presidential pardon given to self-confessed murder middleman Melvin Theuma ended up in the hands of Yorgen Fenech.
He also said he could not understand how the Montenegro wind farm scandal had happened. An investigation by Times of Malta and Reuters had found that 17 Black, the Dubai company owned by Yorgen Fenech, made a profit of €4.6 million from Enemalta's purchase of a windfarm in Montenegro.Mizzi, who spearheaded that project as Energy Minister, was subsequently kicked out of the Labour Party following those revelations.
The former prime minister lashes out at the Caruana Galizia murder inquiry, especially decrying the potential conflict of interest of former chief justice Joseph Said Pullicino. He describes it as a political exercise and says he has no doubt its conclusions were leaked to the opposition leader before they were made public.
Muscat also took exception to claims by some key Labour figures that the Maltese state has “changed” since he was forced out of office.
“The state was, is and will be. It is the government that can change,” he said. In the first part of the interview published on Friday, Muscat refused to rule himself out of making a political return in future.
The full interview
HG: People elected you in 2013 and trusted you with taking the tough decisions. Yet, when it came to the most crucial moment – the Panama Papers fallout in 2016 and the subsequent investigations – you called an election. You wrote on Facebook: “I took the decision to ask for a new mandate where the electorate will judge me on this matter.” You’re almost blaming the electorate for the fallout.
JM: Absolutely not. I took the decisions and I went to the people. It was becoming difficult to govern. Did I make mistakes? Yes, I did. Did I take tough decisions which were correct? Yes, I did. But I was conditioned by a situation where my wife and I were being accused of owning a secret company and making money off it. Peter Caruana Galizia made a statement in a court submission saying that [his wife] Daphne never alleged that my wife or I ever took money from Azerbaijan. I paid the ultimate political price.
Yes, you paid the price politically, but a journalist paid with her life and her family’s been tormented.
I weighed my words carefully. Politically I paid the price.
With the benefit of hindsight, don’t you think you should have resigned in 2017 in the aftermath of the Panama Papers?
If I resigned in 2017 and 18 months later it emerged from the [Egrant] inquiry that someone had falsified signatures, what was I expected to do? Asked the new prime minister to step aside for me?
Who do you think Egrant belongs to?
I don’t know. There are testimonies in court. I won’t speculate. It’s definitely not mine.
You’ve ended up in this situation because of a number of people linked to you. Let me mention a few: Chris Cardona, Keith Schembri, Yorgen Fenech, Neville Gafà, Glenn Bedingfield, Brian Tonna, Edward Zammit Lewis, Joe Cuschieri, Adrian Hillman, Carmelo Abela, Rosianne Cutajar… Each one ended up discredited, arraigned or accused with serious allegations. How can you say you had your hand on the pulse when you were somewhat involved with each of these?
If the contents of a mobile phone are exposed, you can be assured many people say certain things…
… Some of these people I mentioned ended up in court.
JM: You know what I’m saying. I won’t judge anyone based on a text message. I always had faith in the people I appointed. I will not go with the flow with those who are intent on hanging people from lamp posts because these people happen to be the flavour of the month. I don’t dispose of people.
Even if these people ended up discrediting you and your government?
Some of those who made mistakes are facing justice. Let’s face it, one of the cases of alleged corruption concerned The Times.
I knew you’d end up shifting this on to us.
With all due respect.
… A case involving your right-hand man…
… And a case involving your former managing director.
… Who I can assure you I won’t defend.
The case allegedly happened before Labour was in government and it concerned this company.
And the court heard how Times of Malta was the actual victim because we paid dearly [for the printing machines]. But I will let the court decide who’s guilty.
So, are you saying I cannot make certain statements and you can?
Didn’t you have a whiff of corruption on issues like 17 Black, the sale of the hospitals, Macbridge?
When I asked about them, I was always given an explanation. Whether I was naïve, time will tell. But things aren’t always black and white. I believe my judgement of most people was correct. But there might have been others I wasn’t correct about. But I will not be the one who will dump Keith Schembri, for example, because he’s the flavour of the month, especially considering what he’s going through. I’m not that type of person. Even the worst of decisions are often driven with good intentions. I’m sure that President Biden was driven by good intentions when he decided to withdraw his troops from Afghanistan – and now look at the disaster.
Are you convinced that the institutions were working well?
From what I know now, I’m convinced there were certain people in certain institutions who were not doing their job. I can only vouch for myself. Under my leadership, Daphne was murdered, but under my leadership, people were arrested for the crime. Never in our history were people arrested.
We will get to Daphne’s murder.
I don’t do self-praise. But last week [investigator] Keith Arnaud was described a hero (by Caruana Galizia’s son). Ask Keith Arnaud about my role.
But on an administrative level, when Konrad Mizzi was caught in the Panama Papers scandal, you removed his portfolio and he didn’t remain Labour’s deputy leader. No other action was taken. He was re-elected in 2017 and then reappointed minister. This is the equivalent of a Church deciding to shift paedophile priests from one parish to the other.
I believed the power station project was crucial and on a technical front, Konrad was one of the few who could deliver that project. So, I removed his portfolio and left him under my responsibility. It wasn’t an easy thing to do. I took over the responsibility at that point. But again, we’re talking about double standards. A former energy minister was caught with an account in Switzerland which he claimed he forgot to declare. Was anything done?
Two wrongs don’t make a right.
I’m not saying that. I’m asking what action did the institutions take?
I think Keith Schembri took many decisions with genuine intentions
Your predecessor left an overseas summit to convene a cabinet meeting when the oil scandal was exposed. He did his utmost to bring people to justice, though of course the case drags on in court.
And nothing happened.
But he took action just two months before the election.
If I had to meddle in the institutions, don’t you think I’d have embarked on a witchhunt? I let the institutions work. Politically, I’m the only prime minister who stepped down.
You demanded an explanation from Konrad Mizzi and Keith Schembri. And you stopped there. The rumour is that you did nothing about them because both Schembri and Mizzi have something on you, that you have something to hide. What do you say to that?
It’s absolutely not true. The only thing I kept in mind was that they were two very important pegs in government. Again – I’m the one who ended up resigning here. Did Konrad or Keith tell me the truth? I think time will tell.
With the things we know today, do you think things are as they said they are?
As if I’m going to go there.
Did they fool you?
I’m not going to play the jury.
They’re your friends.
I’m not going to judge them like others judged me. I know what my wife and I went through, because people made things up and falsified signatures – and you don’t want to talk about this issue, people falsified signatures to frame me and my wife. A massive frame-up. Fabrications that go on till this day.
I’m asking you about Keith Schembri.
Yes, but how can I use one standard for myself and another for others? I took the decisions I took. Whatever happened, happened. Like I said, politically, I paid the price. Nobody else.
Keith Schembri is not in a good state, healthwise. Are you still in contact with him?
I’m not going to say… I’ll say the truth. Keith and I had cut contact for a while. When I heard about his health, I reconnected, because I wanted to see how he was.
When was the last time you spoke?
Had you cut off from all contact because you felt he betrayed you?
I cut off contact.
You don’t want to say why.
I cut off contact and I think the situation he’s going through is what it is. I think that Keith took many decisions with genuine intentions. Time and the course [of affairs] will tell us what his role was in all these things. And I’m not going to judge him in advance. What is sure is that in Daphne’s case, investigators never, in any way, flagged him to me. Never.
When Daphne was killed, everything in this country’s history changed. How did you react when you learnt that Yorgen Fenech was the alleged mastermind?
There wasn’t a moment when I was told that Yorgen Fenech was the alleged mastermind. There was a shortlist of suspects. It started zeroing in, and my thinking was, when investigators starting moving in that direction… I didn’t ask investigators for information, they would inform me of their own volition when we came to crucial points. For instance, one time, Interpol or Europol were not agreeing with the investigators’ decisions. And they came to me, because it was a major decision about strategy. I told them ‘whatever the case, international investigators have to remain. It will not be sustainable if they withdraw from the case’. That was the only time when I took some sort of decision concerning [the case]. But I wanted to carry this thing to the end, and then leave.
Melvin Theuma has testified about the alleged mastermind getting him to fix Daphne Caruana Galizia’s murder. When you called an election, the alleged mastermind called Theuma and told him to stop things for now. On the day you won the election, he called him again and told him to proceed. This is evidence from court. It seems they didn’t dare kill Daphne if the Nationalists were in power, but they put their minds at rest under a Labour government.
I won’t speculate about what Melvin Theuma is saying and not saying, with all the facts and contradictions. What you say is an interpretation of all this. It’s a recording. But it’s an interpretation. What I can say is that the inquiry clearly showed that neither I nor the government were in any way informed or aware of what was happening. This emerged clearly in the inquiry.
So, you do not think that criminals were given the impression that with you in power, they would not suffer consequences?
They were arrested. The three hitmen were arrested. No, with all due respect. Those allegedly involved were arrested. In the Karin Grech case, nothing happened. In the Raymond Caruana case, nothing happened. If there’s impunity, it’s there. In this case, if there was the impression of impunity, it was a mistaken one. Because those involved were arrested.
The three murders you mentioned were all political ones. But the Daphne case was different. The inquiry also found that the state facilitated this sort of impunity.
We can talk about the inquiry.
We’ll get to that.
With all due respect. If there was the impression of impunity, it was a mistaken one. The hitmen and alleged mastermind were arrested. In the other cases, nobody was arrested. We had a prime minister who said: ‘Vote me into power and I’ll tell you who killed Karin Grech’. That’s not what happened.
You said you never met Yorgen Fenech at Castille. But your WhatsApp chats show you had a fairly intimate relationship. One of our journalists, Jacob Borg, had once asked you when you last spoke to Yorgen Fenech. You said ‘one year, maybe two’. It looked like you pretended to forget. From what we know, you tried to misdirect him.
No, at that point I honestly did not know. And after I corrected myself. Yorgen Fenech was one of the smarter business minds. He was a very good networker, many people knew him, beyond political parties.
It seems everyone wanted to be his friend.
That’s right. That’s right. So, I’m not going to pretend that I only spoke to him once or didn’t know him. I knew him, and I got to know him mainly after they got the Electrogas contract. Before that, I had met him very few times. He was a key interlocutor in the government’s major project.
You said the case is being solved under your watch. There have been arrests and people have yet to pay for what they did. What you are not saying is that you were compromised in multiple ways. Your chief of staff was involved – at least from what we know – in at least a cover-up, you were close to the alleged mastermind, and the suspects knew they were going to be arrested. This is serious. If this wasn’t such a macabre case, it would be a farce, a comedy of errors. From what I can see, there was a serious attempt to cover up who ordered this murder.
First things first. In the inquiry, I am quoted as saying that I was very angry that the alleged killers seemed to be informed before they were arrested. Those were very closed meetings, and I was angry because people could have died. Unfortunately, the inquiry quotes that part of my testimony behind closed doors, saying I said it in the open. It’s not true, I didn’t say that in the open. It’s one of the things that might be minor, but it dents the inquiry. Of course, I am angry and want to know right to the end what is true and what is not. What is certain – don’t rely on me. Ask Keith Arnaud what my role was.
In court we’ve heard [alleged criminals] referring to you as ‘ix-Xiħ’, ‘il-King’, ‘in-number One’, and Schembri as ‘Special K’… these sorts of terms reveal intimacy, or at least friendship...
I’m sure if they seized other mobile phones, I’d be described as ‘p****’, ‘faggot’, ‘animal’, ‘the guy who won’t allow anything to happen’, ‘the guy who picked on us’… If we want to pick on a couple of words used by people I have no control over… I don’t know what people call me behind my back, ok?
You invited one of these [Fenech] to your birthday party in January 2019.
Yes, and I’ve explained why and did so after consulting the security services.
What did you tell him that day?
I had already told you, loud and clear, that we said nothing that day. I answered you in writing.
You mentioned Keith Arnaud. You knew what was going on, but you continued to insist on taking Keith Schembri with you to security briefings.
No? He didn’t go to those meetings?
No, he didn’t go… I mean I didn’t push for him to attend security briefings. There were instances when he joined, and others when he didn’t.
You knew at that point that Keith Schembri – the three of you were close…
If you’re saying that I knew that Keith Schembri was passing information to Yorgen Fenech, then no.
Do you believe he was passing on information?
I’m not the jury in all this. If he did it or not, I paid the price.
So, you don’t believe there was collusion.
If he did it or not, I paid the political price.
While all this was going on, why did you keep Keith Schembri in charge of everything?
What do you mean in charge of everything?
He remained there, you knew that Keith Schembri was implicated at the very least in a cover-up, he was allegedly leaking some information…
No, no. I did not have…
You had no such information?
No. As far as I know, this information emerged after I resigned.
It seems the security services and police were not aware of the proximity between yourself, Yorgen Fenech and Keith Schembri. Shouldn’t you have told them?
I told them about myself and Yorgen Fenech.
When… If I give you a date and it turns out to be wrong, you’ll say I was trying to mislead you.
Had you informed the security services about the chats?
They were informed.
You told them that you had this chat group…
I’m not going to discuss what I told the security services, but they were informed.
You say you took the necessary steps at the time. But behind the scenes, were you dragging your feet?
Dragging my feet? In what way? I always left operational affairs in the police’s hands.
It was mainly Keith Arnaud leading things. At one point, it was alleged that I had leaked information about a raid that was to happen in summer, or something like that. The police themselves testified that that decision was taken after I was alleged to have informed about it all – and that I was not told of it at all. So… I exclude it.
Can you assure the Maltese people that you did nothing to slow down the investigation?
I can say, don’t rely on what I say. Speak to the person responsible for the investigation, and he will tell you, if he is at liberty to do so, what my role in all this was.
Keith Schembri says he always followed your instructions. Keith Schembri also spent 30 minutes talking to Yorgen Fenech before he tried to leave Malta by boat.
That’s not quite what Keith Schembri said. The context was… I’ve already spoken about this.
What did you and Keith Schembri discuss when he came to your house before he resigned, when he stayed there until around 3am?
He didn’t stay till 3am.
So that’s not true?
It’s not true. He didn’t stay till 3am. He came to tell me he was resigning. It was quite emotional. After all that time, he told me ‘I’m going to stop here’. And I told him I agreed.
You had thanked Keith Schembri when he departed. Set the inquiry aside. Knowing what we now know about him, would you still thank him today for his service?
I believe that he did several good things. I believe that. I will allow justice to take its course, he is being investigated. I will definitely not ditch a person I know in this situation, knowing what he is going through. I might be in the wrong, I might be in the right. But I will definitely not ditch him.
I still don’t understand the issue of Montenegro (wind farm). I cannot put two and two together there
When Daphne Caruana Galizia first mentioned 17 Black, in February 2017, had you asked Keith Schembri what she was referring to?
Initially not. I had no idea.
Because the inquiry noted that it was not clear when you got to know that Keith Schembri…
And it’s not even clear in my own mind, to be honest. But it wasn’t at the start – I still couldn’t understand the matter. Just like I still don’t understand the issue of Montenegro (wind farm). I cannot put two and two together there.
Melvin Theuma’s pardon ended up in Yorgen Fenech’s hands. Can you explain how?
I don’t know. I honestly don’t know. Even I didn’t have it.
When you see these things… We had a police force headed by a commissioner many called a puppet, with the head of the economic crimes unit doing all he can to slow investigations. Could these have been deliberately not doing anything because Castille was telling them to?
Why blame Castille?
By Castille, I mean Keith Schembri.
Not even I had a copy of the pardon. As far as I know, I only got it when I had to sign it. I don’t know where it came from or why – I honestly don’t know.
What did the police want when they sent for you last year?
The police can reply to that. They showed me some testimonies… asked what you asked me yourselves.
Weren’t you scared?
Why should I?
Depends what you were asked.
After I was questioned, they confirmed I wasn’t being investigated. It’s important to note the fact I wasn’t being investigated, the fact the inquiry concluded I had nothing to do with it.
The public inquiry in Daphne’s murder says: “There was an atmosphere of impunity, generated from the highest echelons of the administration inside Castille, the tentacles of which then spread to other institutions, such as the police and regulatory authorities, leading to a collapse in the rule of law.” This is the equivalent of setting the stage for people to do wrongdoing knowing they won’t face persecution.
And they didn’t.
And they didn’t? Judging by what we’re seeing in court today? We’re talking about the collapse of rule of law.
Because the alleged people behind the crimes have been arrested. Let’s agree on one thing – nothing can ever justify the murder of Daphne.
I accepted the conclusions of this inquiry. I hope legal advice was sought to ensure that the way this inquiry was written would not prejudge the criminal case.
Are you saying that’s the case?
I’m not a lawyer but I hope advice was sought. But if we go through the entire process and the case is taken to a court of human rights which concludes that the case was prejudged, we’d have done all this for nothing. The inquiry says I was not involved (in the crime) and that the state is responsible. I accept the conclusions. The State Attorney did not take part in this inquiry. I don’t know why this happened but we’re in a situation where the state is being accused, the family is making its submissions, and the state did not only not intervene but said it was kept in the dark during proceedings. You can’t take that statement lightly. Two days before the inquiry came out, the opposition leader said we should implement the inquiry’s recommendations. The terms of reference did not cite recommendations.
Are you saying there was a leak?
I have no doubt. The inquiry contains certain points I can’t justify. I had nominated Prof. Ian Refalo to the inquiry but the family objected because he was Adrian Hillman’s lawyer. I nominated Anthony Abela Medici, but that was also turned down because Daphne had mentioned him somewhere. Then there was agreement on the composition of three judges, including former chief justice Joseph Said Pullicino. I am now shocked to read an article by Dr Joe Brincat (lawyer and former PL deputy leader) that the former chief justice had already expressed himself on the matter in a report he had written for the Ombudsman. And the conclusions for that report are practically replicated in the inquiry.
So why didn’t you object to his presence?
I had no idea he did that. I have nothing against Said Pullicino but I’m just pointing out something Joe Brincat said, which he hasn’t rebutted.
But we’re also talking about three reputable judges here.
I’m not saying they’re not. I’m also saying the two judges we nominated before these three were ruled out because they were deemed to have a conflict of interest. I know I’m going to be accused of attacking Said Pullicino and the inquiry.
You had made this comment: “In the worst-case scenario, this inquiry has been relegated to a political exercise.” Now that the conclusions are out, do you believe this is the case?
I have no doubt.
‘Political’ as in ‘partisan’?
I accepted it. OK? But the fact is that the inquiry’s fingerprints are clear. My opinion is irrelevant. I respect Joe Said Pullicino but take a look at certain conclusions: so Joseph Muscat led a government which faced claims of corruption so he should be responsible. Joseph Said Pullicino headed the judiciary when three of its members were found guilty of corruption. He had told Eddie Fenech Adami he didn’t know about it. Using the same yardstick, was he responsible for that? No, he wasn’t.
You are a father and a family man. What message do you have for the Caruana Galizia family?
I know that whatever I say will be misinterpreted. I understand – I think I understand – their hurt. My mother wasn’t killed, theirs was. I hope that just as I accepted the outcome of this inquiry, they too accept the outcome of the Egrant inquiry. If they want an apology, I will make one, I won’t try to avoid that. Even though I’m the prime minister under whose leadership the alleged killers were caught. But that won’t bring their mother back.
The fact remains that many believe if it wasn’t for civil society and the media, the killers would never have been caught.
Matthew Caruana Galizia also said that the person leading the investigation is a hero.