Seventy-eight persons employed with several companies in which former OPM chief of staff Keith Schembri has a business interest have filed an urgent application in court asking for their wages to be exempted from a freezing order issued by a judge last week.
The request comes a day after a similar application filed by six companies owned by Schembri which asked for permission to temporarily have access to their assets, saying they must pay salaries to their employees.
Firms belonging to Schembri had their assets frozen last Monday after a court issued an attachment order to that effect. The order listed 91 people and companies, including Schembri and his accountants at Nexia BT, Brian Tonna and Karl Cini, and ordered the freeze on suspicion of money-laundering offences.
Police Commissioner Angelo Gafà on Friday confirmed that four people were arrested between Monday and Tuesday and that all four were granted police bail as investigations continue. The identity of the fourth person remains unknown.
Schembri, Tonna, and Cini were arrested following the conclusion of an inquiry into financial crimes. They were released on police bail after interrogation.
In an application filed on Sunday, the 78 employees asked the court to consider the request as urgent, given that Wednesday is the end of the month and employees are due to be paid their wages that day. They said their wage is their only livelihood and they needed the money to feed their families and pay their bank loans.
They quoted the constitution which says the State has to protect jobs, as well as the European Convention of Human Rights which says that every natural person is entitled to the peaceful enjoyment of his possessions. According to ECHR case law, there must be “ a reasonable relationship of proportionality between the means employed and the aim sought to be realised”.
“An interference will be disproportionate where the property owner concerned has had to bear an individual and excessive burden such that the fair balance which should be struck between the protection of the right of property and the requirements of the general interest is upset,” the ECHR had ruled.
Lawyers Edward Gatt and Mark Vassallo argued that none of the 78 people features on Monday’s investigation order and the freezing of their salary was disproportionate. The lawyers said their clients' right were being breached as they were simply employees and had nothing to do with the case at hand.
The lawyers, therefore, asked the court to hear their submissions with urgency and subsequently authorise the release of a set amount for the companies to be able to issue salary payments under the watchful eye of a court-appointed administrator.
In the application filed by the companies on Saturday, the lawyers, who also represent Schembri personally, argued that it was yet to be determined whether the freezing order was in line with the conclusions of the magisterial inquiry into the claims of corruption, kickbacks and money laundering, concluded by Magistrate Natasha Galea Sciberras.