Police questioned Keith Schembri on Wednesday about "two large volumes" of WhatsApp messages with Yorgen Fenech, including exchanges in a group that included former Prime Minister Joseph Muscat.
The chats all took place between January and October 2019, when Muscat first left the group and Schembri followed two days later.
Fenech was arrested the following month and charged with conspiring to murder Daphne Caruana Galizia.
Sources close to the investigation told Times of Malta that the majority of messages were “harmless” while there were others which could be perceived as “dubious”, especially in the context of a money laundering investigation.
The sources said the WhatsApp chat group between the three originally began between Muscat and Fenech and it was at a later stage that Schembri was added to the group.
Wines, whiskies, women
Messages included pictures of whiskies, wines and plates of food as well as photographs of women.
The messages also included the offer of the use of a secluded room, ostensibly referring to the farmhouse Fenech owned. Schembri told police the offer was not accepted, sources say.
There were similarities between these WhatsApp chats and those with former Tourism Minister Konrad Mizzi, the sources said, with more or less the same items, similar pictures and a similar conversation.
In conversations, Fenech would say he was going abroad and would ask if any of them wanted him to bring them anything.
Schembri and Mizzi were questioned about these conversations during the several hours they spent under arrest between Tuesday and Wednesday when they were questioned by the unit that investigates financial crime.
Mizzi was called in for questioning on Tuesday and was detained overnight while Schembri was arrested at around 7am on Wednesday morning at his Mellieħa home.
Sources said the reason for their arrest was over money laundering and their links to the businessman.
Police bail until January
Both Schembri and Mizzi were released on police bail on Wednesday. Schembri was granted police bail until January 7 while Mizzi’s police bail extends to January 13.
The probe into communication between the pair and Fenech, at the time the head of the Tumas Group business empire, is understood to be part of a wider investigation into suspected trading in influence.
Sources said Joseph Muscat had been interrogated about the contents of the same WhatsApp chats in August, when he was asked to go to the depot for questioning. On that occasion, Muscat had said he was not a suspect and had answered all the questions put to him by the police.
Schembri and Mizzi both resigned their high-profile positions almost a year ago amid the fall out of the Caruana Galizia murder investigation. The journalist had been the first to reveal in 2016 - when Mizzi was energy minister - that both political figures had secret offshore companies, later confirmed in the global Panama Papers leak.
According to emails revealed by Times of Malta, Panama companies owned by Mizzi and Schembri stood to receive payments from another company, 17 Black later revealed to be owned by Fenech who was one of the directors of Electrogas, which was awarded a lucrative power station contract.
Earlier this year, Times of Malta also revealed how Fenech secretly made a €4.6 million “profit” via his secret company 17 Black off Enemalta’s decision to buy a wind farm in Montenegro.