The fraudulent Vitals/Steward deal is back in the headlines.
In a week when Times of Malta and its media partners released new revelations, plus the publication of a strongly worded Auditor General report, we take a look back at some of the key events and findings.
1. Follow the money…to Joseph Muscat
On the face of it, things look innocuous.
Soon after resigning, ex-Prime Minister Joseph Muscat went to work for a respectable-looking group of Swiss companies.
Peeling back the corporate layers tells a very different story.
One of the Swiss companies, Accutor Consulting, used to exist under a very different, and familiar name – VGH Europe.
The name is no coincidence.
Two former directors of VGH Malta, the people entrusted by Muscat’s government to run three public hospitals, confirmed VGH Europe formed part of plans to export the Malta hospitals concession model to other European countries.
Another familiar name pops up in the Accutor money trail – Steward Health Care, the company that took over running the hospital from VGH Malta.
Steward Health Care paid companies in the Accutor group €5.9 million during the lead-up to Muscat’s contract between March 2019 and January 2020.
Muscat’s last official day as prime minister was on January 12, 2020.
Just ten days later, he signed a contract with the Accutor group that would have netted him €540,000 over a 36-month period.
The payments to Muscat halted abruptly after just four months, and €60,000.
Muscat insists the payments were for documented consultancy work he carried out.
2. Landing the real deal
Chris Fearne famously described Steward Health Care as being the “real deal”.
Ex-VGH director Ram Tumuluri has a story to tell about how that deal landed.
In a chunky 500-page filing to the US government, Tumuluri claims Muscat’s government conspired with Steward Health Care to boot him out of Malta.
The filing is peppered with references to “bribes”, “brown bags” and dark machinations within the Prime Minister’s Office to hustle through the Steward deal, to Tumuluri’s detriment.
Independently of Tumuluri’s narrative, the Auditor General has remarked on the “false sense of urgency” created by the government in December 2017 to push through the deal.
An e-mail reveals how Armin Ernst, Steward's CEO, told OPM chief of staff Keith Schembri that Steward would be waiving its due diligence on the deal due to the pressing timelines.
Ernst was a man wearing many hats.
A few months before popping up as Steward’s CEO, he acted as the CEO for VGH Malta.
Before that, he was employed by Steward.
Tumuluri places many of VGH Malta’s failures on Ernst’s lap.
He claims Ernst went behind his back to continue negotiations with Steward to negotiate a takeover of the hospitals concession.
Steward, Muscat, Schembri and Mizzi dismiss Tumuluri’s claims as false.
Tumuluri says he cannot discuss the issues raised in his US whistleblower complaint and will not comment on “any ongoing investigations”.
3. The spending spree
The people behind VGH Malta hit the ground running.
Just not in the way many people expected.
Flashy cars, 5-star hotel stays, and expensive meals were all put on the tab of one of the companies linked to the hospitals concession.
Tumuluri and fellow VGH Malta director Mark Pawley insist no public funds were spent.
One thing is certain.
Barely any money was spent on renovating St Luke’s.
The hospital was meant to be part of a promised €200 million renovation of three public hospitals.
This renovation was meant to be the key reason why the government handed over the running of St Luke’s, Karin Grech and the Gozo hospitals to private players.
A visit to St Luke’s paints a dark picture of neglect, by both VGH and later Steward.
The deal with Steward was annulled by a civil court on fraud grounds in February.
Judge Francesco Depasquale had listed a litany of broken renovation promises.
No new beds at St Luke’s, no new Gozo hospital.
The telephone operators at the Gozo hospital got new toilets, Depasquale remarked pointedly, but there was not much else to show for Steward’s supposed investment in the hospitals.
Steward Health Care is appealing the decision.
Both Steward and the people behind VGH insist no fraud took place.
4. Misleading cabinet
Konrad Mizzi misled cabinet.
Gone was the usually ambiguous language by the Auditor General.
The National Audit Office has outright accused Mizzi of “engineering” a ruse to manufacture a €100 million windfall for Steward Health Care.
Mizzi’s ruse gave Steward Health Care insurance against the civil case opened by ex-opposition leader Adrian Delia.
Should a court terminate the concession, which it did in February, the government would be obliged to pay Steward Health Care €100 million.
Judge Depasquale found a way around this by annulling all deals, including the Mizzi one, on fraud grounds.
Mizzi has kept a low profile ever since bowing out as an MP - and finding God - in March 2022.
He broke his silence this week.
Mizzi insisted that cabinet was fully briefed about what he was up to.
He dismissed the Auditor General’s conclusions as pure conjecture, irresponsible and blatantly false.
Mizzi, who is banned from travelling to the United States due to “corruption” in the power station deal, is under the lens of a criminal probe into the hospitals deal.
His home has been searched and his mobile phone taken by investigators.
A four-year inquiry instigated by rule-of-law NGO Repubblika is expected to conclude soon.
The course of the inquiry has the potential to rock Labour to its core.
With the endgame nearing, Muscat has demanded inquiring magistrate Gabriella Vella step down.
“I will fight even on my own for truth to prevail and for those cooking up conjectures to suit their political agenda to pay,” Muscat has declared.
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