Updated 3.40pm with Bonnici's reaction
Former Economic Crimes Chief Assistant Commissioner Ian Abdilla confirmed that Nexia BT had an office at the Justice Ministry, where computers were also seized.
Abdilla was asked by PN MP Jason Azzopardi about the controversial tax advisory firm as he was testifying in the Daphne Caruana Galizia murder inquiry.
He continued to defend his position as to why the servers of Nexia BT were not seized when the Panama Papers scandal emerged in 2016. The servers were only seized a year later as part of the Egrant inquiry.
In the last sitting, Abdilla said the police feared they would be sued if they seized the servers of Nexia BT in 2016 with no proof of wrongdoing.
His statement sparked outrage from lawyer and MP Jason Azzopardi who is representing the Caruana Galizia family.
“How do you explain that? That doesn’t happen in a normal country. Didn’t you see the collusion? This is a mafia state,” Azzopardi exclaimed.
“That was another place to search,” Abdilla replied, going on to point out how he had advised the authorities on the need to beef up the ECU.
Former chief justice Joseph Said Pullicino hit back: “The main problem is enforcement. Without that, there is a sense of immunity."
In a statement later, former justice minister Owen Bonnici denied that Nexia BT or its representatives had any office at the ministry.
"It's not true that Nexia BT had any servers at the justice ministry. And no servers were taken away from the ministry I occupied. This is an utter lie from Dr Jason Azzopardi," he said.
Nexia BT managing partner Brian Tonna was hired by Bonnici's ministry on a €5,000 monthly position of trust contract in 2014.
The Egrant saga
The inquiry also heard that former Prime Minister Joseph Muscat had filed a complaint to kickstart the Egrant inquiry hours after footage was aired in 2017 showing former Pilatus Bank chairman, casually leaving the Ta’ Xbiex premises, carrying a suspicious suitcase.
Abdilla recalled how that evening he had just sat down for dinner after returning home from duty, when he was alerted to the fact that Ali Sadr had been filmed leaving the bank premises carrying two pieces of luggage.
Abdilla had called then-Commissioner Lawrence Cutajar at around 8:39pm, who instructed, “Don’t go yet to the depot” (Tmurx għalissa d-depot), implying that some form of legal advice, presumably from the AG, would first be sought.
It was around 10pm that Abdilla was summoned to the police headquarters, getting there almost at the same time as duty magistrate Aaron Bugeja. Later that night, at around 1am, Muscat’s lawyer, Edward Gatt turned up to file a criminal complaint that set in motion the 18-month long Egrant inquiry.
“How can you explain the fact that you did nothing when you had the first FIAU report in 2016, but acted immediately when the prime minister filed the complaint?” asked parte civile lawyer Therese Comodini Cachia. “Please explain the discrepancy,” she urged.
Abdilla replied: “I’m being asked about matters that happened quite a while ago. Police take decisions according to proof and circumstances at the time. I’ve already explained and I don’t need to repeat,” referring to earlier testimony before the board.
“You’re not even addressing the question,” Madam Justice Abigail Lofaro promptly remarked.
Recalling that night in 2017, Abdilla explained how after the prime minister's complaint, both Pilatus Bank and Nexia BT offices were shut down. Police officers were placed outside their door and no one was allowed in before Magistrate Bugeja and the Assistant Commissioner himself turned up early the following morning.
“But wasn’t it also in the prime minister's interest for the police to act fast,” asked Chief Justice Emeritus Joseph Said Pullicino.
“You have to live the moment,” (Trid tkun qed tgħix dak il-mument) came the reply. He further explained that Net News had subsequently confirmed, during the inquiry, that the Ali Sadr footage had not been aired live.
“As former chief of the economic crimes unit, weren't you interested in finding out who was the ultimate beneficial owner of Egrant,” the judge asked.
“Yes, that was within our remit even though the inquiry had a very, very narrow scope,” said Abdilla, adding that although the inquiry had delved deep, it had stopped at Nexia BT's Brian Tonna’s statement that he had bought Egrant "off the shelf", for some potential prospective buyer.
“That’s where we stopped. We found no other evidence to contradict that fact.”
But former Judge Michael Mallia pressed on, asking about the email by Nexia BT to Mossack Fonseca stating that the Egrant owner was someone so important that further details would be communicated via Skype.
“Did you ask him who that person was? It’s a simple, direct question,” asked Judge Mallia.
“Definitely yes. Tonna had testified in 2017 and insisted all along that the reference to Skype was something else. It did not refer only to Egrant. It was their way of doing business,” Abdilla replied.
“But there he was referring directly to Egrant,” exclaimed the judge.
“There was a whole chunk on that in the [Egrant] report. The magistrate’s conclusions based on the evidence, excluded it. There was a particular interpretation. I don’t wish to mislead the board.”
'Magistrates are not there to give advice'
Abdilla explained that subsequently, while consulting “some magistrates” on the matter, he had been told that a warrant could hardly have been issued merely based on that evidence.
“Who told you so? I would have never stepped into the matter. Magistrates are not there to give advice. That’s unethical,” Madam Justice Lofaro promptly remarked.
Fielding further questions during the two-hour session, Abdilla also confirmed that to date, a letter rogatory, seeking answers from Dubai authorities regarding documents found in Yorgen Fenech’s office, was still being drawn up.
The public inquiry continues on Wednesday.