It started with a single name in a leaked e-mail. Macbridge.
A 2015 email detailed how Macbridge and Yorgen Fenech's 17 Black would funnel up to $2 million to offshore companies owned by Keith Schembri and Konrad Mizzi.
The first port of call for a consortium of journalists from Times of Malta, Reuters and other reporting partners was the United Arab Emirates - the secretive financial hub named in the leaked email by Nexia BT's Karl Cini as the place where Macbridge was registered.
Months of inquiries in the UAE consistently drew a blank. No such company could be traced.
The big break finally came in November 2019. After his arrest on suspicions of complicity in Daphne Caruana Galizia’s murder, Fenech teased knowledge of government corruption schemes running into the millions.
A bridge to China?
He claimed Macbridge stood for Malta China bridge. At his Portomaso home, investigators seized a batch of business cards.
Among those cards was the name of Chen Cheng, a negotiator for Accenture involved in the Shanghai Electric Power – Enemalta deal as well as the wind farm project.
Fenech also made an as yet unverified claim about a payment of €1 million made to former OPM chief of staff Keith Schembri in Hong Kong.
Times of Malta and Reuters set about searching through corporate filings in Hong Kong for any trace of Macbridge.
Journalists found not one, but two companies by that name, although one of them was eliminated as a likely candidate as its incorporation dates did not match up with the suspected corruption timelines.
Macbridge International Development Limited, formed in September 2014, was identified as the company to focus on.
As luck would have it, Macbridge’s owner used the services of the notorious Panama Papers law firm Mossack Fonseca.
A dive into the 11.5 million leaked records left journalist with a name. Tang Zhaomin.
Initial research showed Tang has business links with Mao Haibin, an official in the Chinese company given the exclusive concession in China to sell Maltese residency.
A deep dive into Tang’s social media accounts threw up another lead. Tang identified herself as the mother-in-law of Chen Cheng.
Following the money
A summary of transaction records from Fenech’s 17 Black yielded another potential lead to Hong Kong and China. The records showed €1 million was paid to Dow’s Media, a company registered in Hong Kong.
The director of the company, Wang Rui, turned out to be a business partner of Tang Zhaomin in a Chinese KFC franchise.
Efforts to contact Tang proved unsuccessful. However, a trip by Reuters to Nanjing, 180 miles from Shanghai, would prove more fruitful.
The purpose was to visit a catering company that public corporate records showed Tang co-owns.
That company’s headquarters turned out to be a KFC franchise, located in a shopping complex and serving American fast food.
The visit revealed a new connection with Chen, the Accenture executive, and with Malta.
A staff member at another nearby KFC, run by the same catering company that Tang co-owns, said she had no knowledge of Tang Zhaomin but she did know another co-owner, a woman called Wang Rui.
With a number supplied by KFC staff, Wang Rui was contacted by phone. She told Reuters she is a cousin of Tang Zhaomin and Tang is Chen’s mother-in-law.
She said she set up Dow’s Media at Chen’s request and for his purposes, and knew nothing about the million dollars or the firm’s activities.
“He asked me to set up the company and I thought there wasn’t any problem in doing so,” Wang said of Chen. “He told me that it would do media-type work.”
She added that Chen at the time had told her he could not set the company up himself because of his connection to a state-owned enterprise. Wang didn’t name that company or otherwise elaborate.
The confirmation corroborated suspicions that Chen Cheng was behind Macbridge, a company intimately linked to accusations of government corruption.