Former minister and EU commissioner John Dalli pleaded not guilty on Wednesday when he was accused in court of trading in influence and attempted bribery over an alleged €60 million bribe by his former aide to help influence EU tobacco legislation in 2012. The case had led to Dalli's resignation from the commission.
The 72-year old former politician sat through a three-hour sitting, taken up mainly by the testimony of Police Commissioner Angelo Gafa’ who was directly involved in the investigations that first kicked off in October 2012.
Gafa' told the court that a report by the EU anti-fraud agency OLAF had concluded that there was no conclusive evidence about Dalli’s involvement both as instigator or mastermind, but circumstantial evidence appeared to indicate that he may have been aware of what his aide, Silvio Zammit was up to.
Zammit, a local restaurateur whom Dalli described as a friend and “one of some 300 canvassers,” was suspected of complicity in the attempted bribe from tobacco company Swedish Match.
Maltese lawyer Gayle Kimberly, Swedish Match’s lobbyist in Malta, was also believed to have guided Zammit’s lobbying attempt.
The OLAF report concluded that while there was a case to prosecute Zammit, more investigations were needed against Dalli and Kimberly.
That report was discussed during a meeting in October 2012 between then Police Commissioner John Rizzo, his deputy John Cachia, Assistant Commissioner Michael Cassar,then Attorney General Peter Grech, then deputy AG Donatella Frendo Dimech and Gafa’ himself.
Dalli questioned at police headquarters
Two months later, Dalli was questioned at police headquarters, following an arrest warrant in his regard.
He insisted that the OLAF investigations were all intended “to place him in a bad light.” He also stood firm in his position on snus, as explained by Swedish Match in an interview with Times of Malta where he was reported saying that “he was willing to take unpopular decisions as long as they were supported by science.”
Dalli had told police about a call he got from Zammit while at the Kempinski Hotel in Gozo telling him about a “foreigner” who wished to meet him.
That was Tomas Hammargren, the chairman of the European Smokeless Tobacco Lobby (ESTOC) who handed Dalli two reports on smokeless tobacco.
Dalli said that he had not given importance to that informal meeting, thinking that the foreigner was a lawyer.
He also confirmed that his aide had set up a meeting with Kimberly, explaining that he had no idea that she represented the snus lobby.
She had told Dalli that she was gathering information about smokeless tobacco and did not seem to know much on the subject.
Under police questioning, he denied knowing that Zammit and Kimberly were acquainted, asking why a Swedish company would engage a Maltese lawyer as consultant if not “to get through to him.”
He also admitted to having met Zammit at his office but only to discuss the latter’s run as candidate in the local council elections.
Dalli saw attempts to tarnish his reputation
In his statements, Dalli voiced suspicion about the head of the EU anti-fraud agency Giovanni Kessler and the OLAF investigation, stating that it was all a setup to tarnish his reputation and remove him from his post as EU health commissioner.
He did confirm reading the statements Zammit had released to OLAF and added that he also got a phone call from Zammit alerting him about OLAF’s investigations.
Gafa' said that was very different to the position adopted by Dalli at OLAF when he said that he was “absolutely” not aware of the investigations in his regard.
During the call from Zammit, Dalli was in Portugal having dinner with then EU Commission President Jose’ Manuel Barroso.
He had not mentioned that information to Barroso, admitting in hindsight that that omission was an error on his part.
Throughout his interrogation, Dalli defended Zammit insisting that he only maintained contact to know what was going on, Gafa' said.
He made it clear that he had never authorized Zammit to act on his behalf and likewise Zammit told police that Dalli had never told him to represent him on business deals.
Police see case against Dalli, Zammit
Police investigations ultimately concluded that there was a case to prosecute both Zammit and Dalli over allegations of bribery and trading in influence.
Zammit was charged in December 2012.
But Dalli’s lawyer informed the police that Dalli, who was still in Brussels, could not travel to Malta because of health reasons.
Gafa’ said that he had insisted that since Dalli had faced over three-and-a-half hours of questioning by the Belgian police, he was fit to travel and he therefore moved to request a European Arrest Warrant. However, the request was put off by a couple of weeks.
Meanwhile, the police commissioner was replaced.
Dalli insisted he was the victim of a frame-up
Dalli was eventually questioned at police headquarters, but not under caution, in May 2013. He had insisted that the case was “a frame up by both political parties in Malta” as well as the tobacco industry.
He claimed that Barroso had tried to stop him from pushing forward the Tobacco Directive and launched an attack against Catherine Day whom he alleged was putting up pressure against the directive.
Following that questioning, Gafa' said the new police commissioner, Peter Paul Zammit, had instructed him to wait for criminal proceedings against Zammit to be wrapped up before taking action against Dalli.
The case was handed over to Inspector Jonathan Ferris when Gafa’ moved to Security Services. It was later handed on to inspector Yvonne Farrugia and subsequently to inspector Rennie Stivala before ending up in the hands of inspector Anthony Scerri who is handling prosecution today.
Meanwhile Zammit’s case dragged on in court, delayed by a series of constitutional references, explained Gafa’.
Since time was pressing, the decision to press charges against Dalli was finally taken in 2021, concluded Gafà.
As his lengthy testimony reached an end, Dalli’s lawyers argued that “90% of that information” was not relevant because it was an account of third party statements, thus amounting to hearsay evidence.
“We want this case to move fast and we don’t want delays as happened in the case of Zammit,” lawyer Stephen Tonna Lowell said, pointing out that those delays were attributable to the prosecution rather than constitutional references as claimed by Gafà.
Magistrate Caroline Farrugia Frendo deferred the case to later this month.
Inspector Anthony Scerri prosecuted, assisted by AG lawyers Antoine Agius Bonnici and Anthony Vella.
Lawyers Stefano Filletti and Stephen Tonna Lowell were defence counsel.