Keith Schembri’s influence on Joseph Muscat’s cabinet was “disproportionate and wrong” and the former chief of staff seemed to lead a shadow government, Foreign Affairs Minister Evarist Bartolo testified on Wednesday.
“All that power was of no good to the government or the country,” Bartolo told a public inquiry into the murder of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia.
Bartolo said that networks of hidden power “could bypass what is discussed in parliament” and noted that corruption only bothered those who did not profit from it.
“In Malta we have wealthy people who influence power,” the minister said. “We need to examine our conscience, as a nation”.
Bartolo told the inquiry that he had no knowledge of the Electrogas power station deal or contract to privatise three state hospitals, signed between the government and Vitals Global Healthcare.
That prompted a measure of incredulity and surprise from the judges leading the inquiry.
Judge Abigail Lofaro asked whether that meant discussions and decisions were “taken elsewhere, behind cabinet’s back”.
Bartolo replied succinctly: “not always, but in these two particular cases, yes”.
Discussions about a deal Enemalta struck to build a wind farm in Montenegro were similarly vague, he said.
“The general project was discussed, but the nitty-gritty details were not,” he said.
Times of Malta revealed in May that Yorgen Fenech, the businessman charged with complicity in Caruana Galizia’s murder, made millions off that deal through his secret company 17 Black.
17 Black was named as the source of funds for two offshore companies owned by Schembri and former minister Konrad Mizzi.
‘Turn a new page’
Bartolo told the inquiry that new police commissioner Angelo Gafà had a golden opportunity to turn a new page and “address any gaps” in the murder investigation.
“Any possible trail must be followed. The commissioner must carry out a full stocktake,” Bartolo said, telling the inquiry that he believed the critical evidence could be found in “contracts and deals”.
Bartolo said he was happy to see Europol and the FBI involved in the murder case, saying that "in such a small nation, with incestuous relations, this step was essential."
Calling for resignations
The minister told the inquiry that he had pushed, internally, for Schembri and Mizzi to resign. Both men were exposed in 2016 as having opened secret offshore structures while in office.
“I spoke to Keith Schembri, to the minister [Mizzi] and raised the issue at cabinet,” Bartolo said, adding that he was pleased to see pressure from civil society to force change.
“Change does not only come from within,” the minister said. “Now we are spreading power, to reduce the concentration of power.”
The situation had now changed and that the current administration sought to distribute power, Bartolo said.
He touched, briefly, upon a late-night cabinet meeting in November during which ministers were given details of the investigation into the Caruana Galizia murder investigation and discussed a pardon request filed by suspect Yorgen Fenech.
“It was an eye-opener,” Bartolo said.
Malta's financial services
The minister had harsh words for the way in which Malta’s financial services sector had been regulated over the past years.
Joseph Bannister, who led the Malta Financial Services Authority for almost 20 years, had managed to “undo” the work of his predecessor Mario Felice, Bartolo said, adding that successive prime ministers had ignored his warnings about the sector.
“Neither [Eddie] Fenech Adami, nor [Lawrence] Gonzi nor [Joseph] Muscat lent me an ear on that. It was only Alfred Sant who did something about it,” he said.
Bartolo as 'Galileo'
But despite his criticism, the minister voted along government lines whenever confidence votes were presented to parliament.
Pressed on this matter, Bartolo told the inquiry that he had sought to influence matters from the inside, nudging things forward "even by one millimetre" rather than resorting to symbolic gestures.
"I chose to work on the inside," he said, drawing on a Rennaissance analogy to make his point.
"There are two paths: Savonarola or Galileo. I chose Galileo," he said.
Girolamo Savonarola was a Dominican friar who denounced clerical corruption and defied the Pope, and was hanged as a consequence. Astronomer Galileo Galilei, on the other hand, was spared death after he publicly recanted his discovery that the Earth revolved around the sun.
Bartolo recalled how Caruana Galizia had once been a student of his, studying journalism.
“I don’t think she approved of her teacher,” he quipped.
He told the inquiry that Caruana Galizia worked on investigative journalism while also writing about people’s personal lives.
Having lectured on journalism for decades, Bartolo said he firmly believed in freedom of information, fully agreeing with Judge Joseph Said Pullicino that when information was wrongly withheld, that gave way to suspicions and suffocated free and serious journalism.
Focusing upon the specific subject matter of the public inquiry, namely the Caruana Galizia assassination, Bartolo augured that the whole truth would be revealed.
Bartolo was also grilled about former government official Neville Gafà, who has said he was involved in negotiating with Libya on Malta's behalf during the Muscat administration.
The minister told the inquiry that Gafà had “absolutely no role” within his ministry.