February 2013. It’s the peak of a general election campaign. A fresh face and the star candidate of the Labour Party is wheeled out for all television debates. He’s tall, thin, with a bit of a stutter and a geeky look, and he’s all the time talking excitedly about how his party in government will build a new gas-fired power station. Everyone is a bit baffled, and uh?-do-we-need-a-power-station?, but everyone is sort of taken in by his endearing enthusiasm.
This, reader, is the story of where that enthusiasm was coming from.
Labour, as expected, won the 2013 election. It took an age for the promised power station to materialise, and eventually we learnt that it was going to be funded by a consortium of foreign and local companies, including Azerbaijan’s State-owned energy company, Socar.
Azerbaijan, let’s remember, is the land of that corrupt President Aliyev, whom Prime Minister Joseph Muscat met in a dubious visit to Baku in December 2014, together with his chief of staff Keith Schembri and enthusiastic Minister Konrad Mizzi. No press was invited to attend.
Then, out of the blue, we were told that the power station project was going to be supplied by a floating storage unit in the shape of an LNG tanker, permanently berthed in Marsaxlokk Bay.
Erm, what? Mizzi, the Energy Minister, once again enthusiastically took to the screens and explained that this LNG tanker was the best thing since sliced bread. We were told to wait a wee while because this tanker had to be built just for us.
And while we were waiting, he decided to go on another secret trip, this time by himself. One very hot August day in 2015, while you and I were on the beach, he caught a plane to Dubai, the land where the heat in summer is so stifling that it’s officially banned to go out. Was he going on holiday? No, Mizzi, was flying out with a satchel-full of scanned papers received that very morning from Mossack Fonseca, a Panama law firm.
This firm was not just any old boring offshore financial service provider; it was the firm used by the rich and powerful around the world to evade taxes. So what did our minister have to do with it and what was he doing melting away in 50 degrees Celsius temperatures in Dubai?
Well, it so happened that Mizzi had bought a secret company from Mossack Fonseca, called Hearnville Inc., and he needed to open a bank account for it so the (secret) money deposited in this company could then be passed on to this account and he’d be able to withdraw it and… spend it. Of course, he could hardly open the account at BOV, because they would have gone: “Erm, hello, where is this money coming from?”
But shush! No one was meant to know about this trip. The Department of Information, which ethically issues a PR before, during or after a minister’s trip abroad, detailing the purpose of the visit, stayed mum.
Incidentally, Mizzi was not the only one with a secret Panama company. Nexia BT, a Maltese firm of auditors which is very much Malta’s Mossack Fonseca, was busy organising the same for others too.
Karl Cini, Nexia BT’s partner, opened one for the Prime Minister’s chief of staff, called Tillgate; a company called Torbridge, for a certain Chinese chap called Cheng Chen (the very man who negotiated the Enemalta deal with, surprise, surprise, Konrad Mizzi); and a company called Egrant – for someone so ‘important’ that the name could not be written down in an e-mail.
These companies clearly were opened so that their owners could stack secret money (otherwise you would put it in your BOV savings account). But where was the money going to come from?
For Mizzi’s and Schembri’s companies, the evidence points to two main “clients” – Dubai-based companies called 17 Black and Macbridge. Hearnville and Tillgate were going to offer project management/consultancy services and in payment, 17 Black and Macbridge would, it appears, be wiring €126,000 per month to the new bank accounts (Dubai?) of Hearnville and Tillgate, owned by Mizzi and Schembri.
Three months after that secret Dubai visit, in November 2015, two payments totalling €1.1 million were sent to 17 Black from a company owned by an Azerbaijani. Hello again Azerbaijan! It was sent via ABLV, a Latvian bank recently closed down due to money laundering violations.
Another payment of €161,000 was sent to 17 Black, this time by Orion Engineering, a company owned by Mario Pullicino, the local agent for the new power station’s floating storage unit. Hello again power station!
So a total of €1.3 million were transferred to 17 Black. No one knows who owns 17 Black. But whoever owns it, he could be the source of funds for Mizzi’s and Schembri’s secret companies.
Let’s keep in mind that no one was meant to know about all this. We only do thanks to the Panama Papers, the leaked e-mails of Mossack Fonseca, leaked FIAU reports and the investigations of the assassinated journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia and the subsequent Daphne Project.
This, reader, is the story of where that enthusiasm was coming from
When asked by journalists about his Dubai trip, Mizzi – no longer so thin now, no longer so geeky and definitely no longer endearing – spoke of travelling there “just to attract investment to the island”. He denied any wrongdoing, insisting he only had €92 in Hearnville, which was set up to take care of his family and “to populate his assets”.
When a couple of weeks ago, a newly leaked e-mail, obtained by German paper Süddeutsche Zeitung, showed the 17 Black connection, Mizzi told off a questioning journalist for being “rude”, got his PR person to elbow the journalist out of the way and then he went clubbing with teenagers.
Meanwhile, did the police commissioner open the Süddeutsche Zeitung, splutter on his breakfast and promptly bark orders for an investigation?
Did he call in Keith Schembri and Konrad Mizzi for interrogations?
Did the Attorney General step in to investigate?
Was the Prime Minister Muscat furious with his men for smearing his good name? No.
Initially he protected them by holding an election, and now this month, his reply to the mystery 17 Black link with his top men was: let’s organise a mass meeting.
Did the Prime Minister, aghast at these money-laundering facts staring him in his face, take the case to court and ask the duty magistrate to open an inquiry? No.
Did he do anything at all? No, except to say that advice he had been given was not to comment in any way that could prejudice any ongoing magisterial inquiries.
Hang on, what ongoing inquiries? There were no ongoing inquiries, so much so that an MEP and an MP from the Opposition had to request one themselves.
We now wait with bated breath for this magisterial inquiry, or for more Daphne Project revelations, to find out who on earth owns this mystery 17 Black that could be feeding Mizzi and Schembri a whopping €126,000 every month.
But at least we have a good idea where that 2013 enthusiasm was stemming from. And as this mafia saga keeps unfolding and damaging Malta’s reputation by the minute, we know one thing for certain: these two men and their boss must go.
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