A beaming Yorgen Fenech walked out of parliament on Tuesday afternoon, his lawyers' plan to postpone his testimony to the Public Accounts Committee executed to perfection.
Tensions were high before the hearing, Fenech's first public appearance outside of a courthouse since his 2019 arrest, with a high-security operation in place to escort the witness to parliament and contingency plans in place in case of an emergency.
The atmosphere inside the chamber was far more mundane. The committee’s Labour Party members casually shuffled through papers and discussed the latest Italian football mishaps, as the Opposition’s committee members ambled in.
“Love Island is on tonight” quipped one MP, drawing a chuckle from the rest of the committee.
PAC chair Darren Carabott opened the session by explaining to the handful of journalists seated at the back of the chamber that unlike in previous hearings, photographers were not allowed in the chamber, at the request of prison authorities.
Fenech was summoned soon after, appearing just outside the chamber dwarfed by four armoured security guards. Two of the guards were the first to enter the room, briefly pausing to scan the room before signalling for Fenech and the rest of the guards to follow them in.
He duly obliged, confidently striding in wearing a dark suit and tie, flanked by his lawyers Charles Mercieca and Gianluca Caruana Curran.
Right behind them was prison director Christopher Siegersma, the man responsible for granting Fenech permission to appear in front of the committee.
With Fenech set to take his oath, lawyer Charles Mercieca interjected, saying the testimony should be suspended until legal proceedings against Fenech involving the Electrogas contract are concluded.
Referring to policies set out in Erskine May, the British treatise guiding parliamentary procedure, Mercieca argued that similar cases in the UK had seen parliamentary hearings involving witnesses facing criminal charges suspended.
A back-and-forth between Carabott and Mercieca ensued. Fenech impatiently observed the discussion, shifting from side to side in the chamber’s white swivel chairs and occasionally turning to whisper in the ear of lawyer Gianluca Caruana Curran, seated to his right.
At times Fenech appeared eager to get involved in the debate, leaning forward and timidly gesturing to the committee for attention. Each time, Caruana Curran clutched at Fenech’s elbow, appearing to encourage him to let Mercieca speak on his behalf.
After a few minutes of discussion, the session was suspended for the first time, with clerks directed to retrieve the various rulings and standing orders cited by Mercieca. A brief lull followed, with Mercieca and Caruana Curran leaning over to whisper to each other as Fenech sat motionless between them.
With copies of the rulings retrieved, Fenech and his legal team were given 10 minutes to review them in private, exiting the room together with their security escort as the committee members combed through printouts, fervently trying to reconcile them with their notes.
The committee’s PN members, Carabott, Robert Cutajar and Graham Bencini, took advantage of the pause in proceedings to discuss their position, quietly moving to a corner of the room to huddle up and whisper to one another.
The 10 minutes up, Fenech was called back into the chamber, adjusting his buttoned-up suit jacket before taking his seat in between his two lawyers.
Mercieca immediately took up the mantle, formally verbalising the request for Fenech’s testimony to be postponed until pending sub-judice proceedings are completed.
Asked whether he would be willing to testify once these legal proceedings are over, Fenech leapt to life, nodding vigorously as Mercieca reassured the committee that yes, Fenech would certainly testify as soon as possible.
Another, shorter, pause followed as Fenech and his legal team were asked to briefly step outside while the committee considered his request.
Turning to his fellow committee members, Carabott asked whether there were any objections to the request.
PL MPs Naomi Cachia, Clayton Bartolo and Andy Ellul nodded their assent, as Glenn Bedingfield confirmed that they were in agreement.
Meanwhile, Fenech sat patiently outside the chamber, hands clasped, as his lawyers paced around him and prison guards looked on.
With Fenech once again seated in the chamber, Carabott informed his legal team that the committee was granting their request and that Fenech’s testimony was being suspended, warning them that “if the cases are concluded during this legislature while I am still chair, we will certainly summon you to testify”.
Seventy-two minutes into the hearing, Fenech spoke his first words of the afternoon, thanking the committee as he stood up, adjusted his chair and walked out of the room, tugging at his shirt sleeve as he exited. His security escort followed close behind.
A clearly irate Carabott adjourned the session with a parting shot, saying that “in a normal country, the issue of taxpayer funds being channelled would not be discussed in criminal court”.
The PAC is set to meet again next week. When Yorgen Fenech will next appear in public remains to be seen.