A former employee of Pilatus Bank who turned whistleblower and made claims linking the Prime Minister's wife to the secret Egrant Panama company, testified in court today in a case she has instituted against the bank over unpaid wages.
The Russian woman said the CEO at Pilatus Bank had told the executive secretary to the chairman she could not be paid her wages by cheque since the bank did not have a local account, which would make it impossible for her to cash it.
Yet later queries proved that Pilatus did have an account with BOV whose customer service department had informed the secretary that such a cheque could be cashed upon presentation of a valid passport.
The woman said that when she reported this to the bank CEO, he rudely told her to leave his office. However, on the morning of March 29, 2016, she was summoned to the conference room where she was handed a letter of termination and told to leave the bank premises at Ta' Xbiex with immediate effect.
Within minutes she had collected her possessions and left, hoping to receive payment for all her services to the bank in due course. However, over a week later and none the wiser, she contacted Christian Vella, an employee at Finco Trust, the company in charge of the Pilatus payroll, asking for her payslip.
What she eventually received was a payslip of another employee. Mr Vella later admitted it was a genuine error probably due to his having misunderstood her name. He also informed the woman that her former CEO would be contacting her directly regarding her wage queries.
When no contact was made by Pilatus, the woman filed a claim at the Department of Industrial and Employment Relations where her total gross dues were calculated as amounting to €6,044.
After sending a scanned copy of correspondence to all the directors at Pilatus Bank, the woman received an email from Dr Claudanne Sant Fournier, director and legal representative of the bank, informing her she was not an employee and that she had been fully reimbursed for her services.
The witness recalled how she had started working for Pilatus as executive secretary to the chairman on January 18, 2016, after having been told by the CEO that she would not be put on the payroll until she obtained a residence permit. She was reassured that she would be paid once her residence permit was in order.
The following day, she had gone to Identity Malta with a copy of her employment contract and was told that since she was a non-EU citizen the normal procedure for the issue of the permit would last some 8-10 weeks.
Since working without getting paid made her uneasy, she had even suggested that she was put on a service contract. She had duly received a template for a service contract from Dr Sant Fournier which she amended with her personal details. After informing Pilatus that she only had a bank account abroad, she was told that it would not be an issue since there were other employees who received their wages in foreign accounts. However, eventually, no service agreement ever materialised.
The woman also recalled an allegedly standard practice at Pilatus whereby employees were asked to sign a blank paper to provide a specimen signature which would then be used for internal procedures.
Although she usually worked beyond her normal daily nine hours, for an agreed annual base salary of €25,000, the woman said she never received any remuneration from the bank
This practice was today confirmed by Makhabad Ellul and Matthew Keith Borg, two former employees within the Bank's operations department who explained that the signature was used to record payments effected in favour of clients.
The court, presided over by magistrate Donatella Frendo Dimech, heard the witness explain how between February 25 and her dismissal on March 29, 2016, she had taken on additional duties as Front Office Associate. Although she usually worked beyond her normal daily nine hours, for an agreed annual base salary of €25,000, the woman said she never received any remuneration from the bank.
"Were you working for free?" the magistrate queried. "That is why I was concerned" the woman replied, categorically denying that she had received any payment.
Asked by lawyer Stefano Filletti, counsel to Pilatus Bank, what she had to say about footage which allegedly showed her receiving cash at the bank premises on Maundy Thursday last year, the witness insisted she had never been paid her wages. She also pointed out that since she had been in charge of supplies, she used to be given petty cash on a daily basis to purchase stationery, food for the staff kitchen and even to pay parking fines for the chairman's wife.
She said she had also regularly received sealed envelopes to deliver to bank clients residing at local hotels. Although she claimed to have never opened these envelopes, she could "feel" that they contained cash.
Confronted by a document showing an SMS allegedly sent by her to the Pilatus CEO discussing salary received from the bank, the woman categorically denied having sent such a text message.
"From which number was this message sent?" she queried, further pointing out that her personal mobile had not been seized in the course of police investigations. The document exhibited in court did not carry the number of the mobile from which the text message had allegedly been sent. her employees too.
Paul Costa, formerly employed at the Terminations Section at the DIER, also testified that after lodging the claim on behalf of the employee, the department had sent a letter to Pilatus Bank. This was followed by a letter signed by Dr Joseph Giglio, legal counsel to the bank, which stated that the worker had been paid her dues. Copies of bank ledgers requested by the DIER gave no indication of the woman's name attesting that she had actually been paid.
Joseph Saliba, an ETC official, declared under oath that the woman's employment history showed that she had only been officially registered in May 2016, further pointing out that it was every employer's duty to effect registration of new workers.
Marcel Bonnici, from Jobs Plus, testified that the woman had written to Minister Evarist Bartolo regarding her unregistered employment at Pilatus. This correspondence was passed on to Jobs Plus who confirmed that since the employee was married to an EU national, she did not need a work permit. A copy of her marriage certificate secured her freedom of movement by marriage, the court was told.
Makhabad Ellul and Keith Matthew Borg, former Pilatus employees, testified that they knew their former colleague at the bank. She had been responsible for preparing payments and introducing new clients over the phone. Mr Borg also remarked that only operations employees needed to submit a specimen signature and the executive secretary was not one of these.
Lawyer Kris Busietta, on behalf of the Sliema Local Council, under oath exhibited a document showing traffic contravention fines paid on behalf of Pilatus Bank. To date, there were some €395 in outstanding payments, a fact which apparently contradicted an earlier statement made by the bank's lawyer in open court that there was no outstanding balance.
Last on the witness stand was Christian Vella, the Finco Trust employee responsible for preparing Pilatus payroll. He declared that there had never been any information regarding the woman on the payroll system and that he had never prepared a payslip for her wages, admitting that he had mistakenly sent her a copy of another employee's payslip. That same day, he had received a call from the Pilatus CEO telling him to keep out of the matter and that any queries by its employees would be dealt with by the bank itself.
Lawyer Daniel Buttigieg was counsel to the woman. Lawyer Stefano Filletti was counsel to Pilatus Bank. Lawyer Valentina Lattughi was counsel to the DIER.