Police held back from raiding Pilatus Bank on the night Egrant allegations surfaced after the attorney general advised that there was no evidence of a crime, the former police commissioner testified on Wednesday.
Lawrence Cutajar told an inquiry into the murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia that he had received a call from his deputy, Silvio Valletta, that night in April 2017 telling him that attorney general Peter Grech had advised caution.
“The attorney general’s advice to Silvio Valletta was that there was no criminal offence. We could not raid the bank and arrest the owner, just because he went to his bank,” Cutajar testified.
"I thought of the repercussions if we did not follow the attorney general’s advice”.
The former commissioner argued that the police could not act on the basis of a blog post, though he later conceded that "had we not been given that advice, perhaps we might have acted differently".
Cutajar’s testimony confirms the timeline of events Times of Malta first revealed in July.
He told the inquiry that he had not subsequently confronted Grech about that advice, despite the national outcry sparked by footage of lights on inside the bank’s offices that night and video of the bank’s owner, Ali Sadr Hasheminejad, exiting through a side door.
Those images came just hours after Caruana Galizia had alleged on her blog that a safe inside the bank held a document proving that secret company Egrant was owned by the wife of then-prime minister Joseph Muscat.
An inquiry found no evidence to back those claims. Egrant's ownership has yet to be established.
Cutajar urged the inquiry to see things from his perspective, asking rhetorically what would have happened if the police had ignored the attorney general’s advice.
The police had a legal basis to act once Muscat had filed a criminal complaint about the matter, Cutajar said.
It was the second time in as many court appearances that Cutajar placed the blame for police inaction during his tenure on the attorney general.
In August, Cutajar testified that Grech had told police to “exercise great caution” when investigating former minister Konrad Mizzi and advised investigators to “demand a high level of reasonable suspicion”.
Grech has defended that advice, saying “any reasonable and responsible lawyer” would have done the same.
No reason to suspect Valletta
In two hours of testimony on Wednesday, Cutajar said that he had never had any reason to suspect his deputy Silvio Valletta, saying his advice always seemed “plausible”.
“How could I not trust Silvio Valletta?” he asked in exasperation at one point.
Valletta, who retired in 2019, was exposed in January as being friendly with Caruana Galizia murder suspect Yorgen Fenech.
'Evidence, not intelligence'
The former commissioner repeatedly insisted that police needed more evidence before they could haul suspects in for questioning related to investigations into money laundering and suspected corruption.
Neither former OPM chief of staff Keith Schembri nor businessman and murder suspect Yorgen Fenech had faced questioning about secret company 17 Black, he said, arguing that as far as he knew, investigations into the company were ongoing.
Times of Malta and Reuters revealed in late 2018 that 17 Black, which was due to send money to companies owned by Schembri and former minister Konrad Mizzi, was owned by Fenech.
Fenech now faces charges of complicity in Caruana Galizia's murder.
“To summon a person, you need evidence not intelligence,” Cutajar said at one stage.
But that line of argument drew short shrift from the three judges forming the board of inquiry.
“You had the evidence,” they told him. “You just didn’t go for it”.
No information on Nexia BT's Cini
Cutajar, who led the police force between August 2016 and January 2020, again insisted that his job as commissioner was to offer support for his officers and not to lead investigations himself.
His hands-off approach was reflected in replies he gave when quizzed about how police had followed up a recommendation from an inquiry into Egrant allegations.
Asked whether police had investigated Nexia BT partner Karl Cini for perjury, as advised by the inquiry, Cutajar confirmed that he had been questioned by police but “as far as I know no action was taken”. He could not say why.
That inquiry had also ordered probes into former Pilatus Bank employee Maria Efimova for calumny and the bank itself for money laundering.
The Caruana Galizia public inquiry continues on Friday, September 11 when former deputy prime minister Louis Grech will testify.
As it happened
Live blog ends
11.36am That's all from us today - thank you for having joined us. We will have a summary of Cutajar's testimony available at the top of this article shortly.
Louis Grech to testify on Friday
11.32am The inquiry will resume on Friday, when former deputy prime minister Louis Grech is expected to testify.
As for a disagreement over extending the term of the inquiry, it seems the prime minister has yet to reply.
[The prime minister's decision to extend the inquiry's term to December but on a non-renewable basis has irked the board and prompted the Caruana Galizia to file an official objection.]
'Perhaps we would have acted differently'
11.29am Azzopardi returns to something Cutajar said earlier in his testimony: that Silvio Valletta had spoken to Peter Grech about Pilatus Bank and was told there was no underlying crime.
Did that reply by Valletta surprise him? Did he smell something fishy?
Cutajar: “I thought of the repercussions if we did not follow the attorney general’s advice”.
Judge Lofaro asks whether that advice was given in writing. Cutajar says it was verbal.
Cutajar: “Had we not given that advice, perhaps we might have acted differently”.
Azzopardi notes that there was a national outcry at the time. Did Cutajar speak to the attorney general about the advice?
Cutajar says he did not.
“When the prime minister filed a criminal complaint and we had that in hand, we acted immediately. We set up watch at the bank and we seized all evidence. That’s when we acted”.
The witness is thanked and told he can step off the stand. That’s all from Cutajar.
A missing police press release
11.22am Azzopardi moves on to a press release issued by the police which has since been deleted from its records. It was numbered 115/17 and referred to a report by in-Nazzjon.
[The PR was a rebuttal by the police to a story published by in-Nazzjon about Keith Schembri and Konrad Mizzi being charged. It said there was no reasonable suspicion of a crime by either of the two].
Cutajar says he recalls that a press release on March 2 of that year concerned loans by Keith Schembri.
Azzopardi: “Do you know why the press release was taken down? Did you order that?”
Cutajar [adamantly]: “No!”
Azzopardi says the press release was issued one month before the Egrant allegations came to light.
Cutajar says perhaps FIAU reports had not reached the police yet at that stage.
“I don’t just wake up in the morning and decide to issue a press release. If I do so I would first consult my officers”.
The witness says that he sometimes sought advice on press releases, “but not in this case”.
'FIAU reports do not come to me'
11.18am Cutajar is shown a Times of Malta article from April 2017 reporting that he and attorney general Peter Grech had known of suspicions of money laundering by Keith Schembri for a year.
Cutajar says he denies that and adds that FIAU information “does not pass to my desk”.
Karl Cini and perjury claims
11.14am Azzopardi asks about the Egrant report. The magistrate had ordered a probe into Karl Cini [of Nexia BT] over perjury, he says.
Cutajar: “We sent for Cini. He was interrogated by the economic crimes unit in 2018 but as far as I know no action was taken.
Azzopardi: “Do you know why?”
Cutajar: “No, I wasn’t informed”.
Azzopardi: “Was it Ian Abdilla?”
A dearth of crime conferences
11.05am Azzopardi notes that Cutajar was only involved in an initial crime conference on October 19, 2017. All later ones were addressed by the prime minister – including statements about Yorgen Fenech’s arrest and Melvin Theuma’s information to investigators.
“Did you ask why that was so?” Azzopardi asks the witness. “That’s not normal in European countries”.
Cutajar: “No. I wasn’t asked to attend.”
Azzopardi asks how the prime minister got the information about the case.
“He had information from briefings,” Cutajar says, adding that he was present for a briefing about a pardon for Melvin Theuma.
Investigators who led the case were present for those briefings, as was the attorney general, he says.
Semtex and fuel smuggling claims
11.03am Azzopardi tells the witness how just one day after the murder, there were reports on the state broadcasters that the car bomb used the explosive Semtex and that fuel smugglers were behind Caruana Galizia’s murder.
Cutajar says the reports perplexed him. “I can never understand how one day after a murder, a person can speak about the explosive material used. What I can say is that the police investigation was 99.9 per cent based on forensic evidence.”
Azzopardi: “Can you confirm that those claims came from the prime minister’s office?”
Cutajar: “No, I can’t say that”.
Extradition to India
10.58am Azzopardi tells Cutajar that Malta had refused a request by India in 2015 to extradite a person on money laundering charges. The person’s contacts in Malta were Keith Schembri and Brian Tonna, he says, adding that Daphne Caruana Galizia had written about this.
Cutajar says he received no information about the case.
10.50am Lawyer Jason Azzopardi asks Cutajar about photos leaked on the day Caruana Galizia was assassinated. Some "macabre ones" ended up on social media. What had police done about it?
Cutajar says that the magistrate was informed but that the source of the leak was not found.
Azzopardi: "Ramon Mifsud that day posted disgusting comments on his Facebook wall, rejoicing at what had happened".
[Mifsud is a former police officer who wrote 'What goes around comes around, cow dung! Feeling happy' hours after the murder.]
Azzopardi asks what steps were taken.
Cutajar: "We are not like the army. An officer cannot be dismissed. But I took immediate action. I appointed a board, chaired by Antoine Casha and with two other members. I told them of charges against Mifsud and I immediately suspended him.
"But whenever the case came to be heard, Mifsud did not show up and presented medical certificates to justify his absence. He was put on half pay and remained so until I left".
'What would have happened had I played the investigator?'
10.48am Cutajar wants to get something off his chest.
“When I played ‘old school’ and shouldered all responsibility to gather evidence, there was an uproar and I was criticised. Imagine what would have happened had I played the investigator in these cases! They would have called for the death penalty!”
Judge Said Pullicino: “The impression out there is that nothing was done”.
Cutajar: “It’s a misconception. Just because people aren’t arrested, it is assumed that nothing has been done. First, you have to gather evidence, then you summon people”.
Probes into Caruana Galizia suspects
10.44am Cutajar is asked whether the people involved in the Caruana Galizia murder were known to the police.
“They had connections in politics and business," the judges say.
"They had been investigated in relation to other matters. I think the MSS would have that answer, they have that sort of intelligence. I wouldn’t have that information”.
'Valletta's input was always plausible'
10.38am Comodini Cachia asks whether police investigated leaks from Pilatus Bank. She recalls the bank issuing a press release asking the police to investigate how confidential documents had been leaked.
Cutajar says he does not recall that.
Comodini Cachia: “After the meeting with Yorgen Fenech which was called off, you said that the investigation changed course.”
Comodini Cachia: “Today, do you still have faith in Valletta?”
Cutajar: “I’m no longer commissioner.”
Comodini Cachia: “But until you were commissioner?”
Cutajar: “His input was always plausible.”
The witness is asked about the Malta Security Services, but says all questions about the MSS should be addressed to its chief.
'You need evidence not intelligence'
10.35am Cutajar is arguing that a blog post is no basis for an investigation.
“Since 1999, no investigation has been prompted by a simple blog post,” he argues.
“If somebody decides one fine morning to blog about goings-on at a bank, does the police act on that?”
Judge Mallia tells the witness that in this case police were not dealing with allegations plucked out of thin air, but with a lot of circumstantial evidence
“which you completely discarded”.
Cutajar: “To summon a person, you need evidence not intelligence”.
The judges reiterate: “You had the evidence. There were the servers. You just didn’t go for it”.
'AG told us there was no crime'
10.28am Cutajar says that after the meal, he received a call telling him that lawyer Edward Gatt and another person [we missed his name] would be heading to the police depot.
Meanwhile, the prime minister and his family filed a complaint about the allegations.
Magistrate Aaron Bugeja met with Cutajar in his [Cutajar’s] office and investigations began on the basis of that complaint.
“It’s easy to speak now in court. But that the time, we had the attorney general’s advice that there was no underlying criminal offence. We couldn’t just arrest”.
"We acted on the attorney general's advice. You must put yourselves in our position at the time."
That night at Pilatus Bank
10.25am Back to the courts, where Cutajar is recalling that notorious night in April 2018 when allegations about Egrant surfaced.
Cutajar was famously in Mġarr having dinner that night.
He tells the inquiry he was having a meal with other police officers when he received information about movement around the bank.
“I immediately called Valletta, who told me that he had just called [attorney general] Peter Grech.
The attorney general’s advice to Silvio Valletta at the time was that there was no criminal offence. We could not just raid the bank and arrest the owner, just because he went to his bank.”
Yorgen Fenech wants probe into mobile phone
10.22am Meanwhile, outside of court: murder suspect Yorgen Fenech is demanding a criminal investigation into leaks of data from his mobile phone. He also says his phone, which is investigators’ hands, has been used to make calls in recent days.
Read the full report.
Email evidence 'not enough'
10.20am Judge Said Pullicino asks whether Cutajar spoke to the prime minister when these revelations emerged.
“I speak to investigators, not to the prime minister,” he replies.
Judge Mallia notes that even when the police received an FIAU report about the matter, the police did not send for people involved.
“There was no evidence!” Cutajar exclaims.
Judge Mallia: “What about emails by Nexia BT and emails about 17 Black. Isn’t that evidence?”
Cutajar: “It’s not enough!
Trust in Valletta
10.15am Comodini Cachia asks about 17 Black. There was a lot of information in the public domain. Did the police send for Keith Schembri, or go to his office to ask what he knew of the company?
“No,” Cutajar concedes. “Until I was there, the investigation was ongoing.”
Judge Lofaro interjects. She reminds Cutajar of leaks about the Caruana Galizia investigation.
Cutajar: “Leaks may come from the people you least expect. How could I not have faith in Silvio Valletta?”
Judge Lofaro: “Apart from the leaks, what about the photo with the limousine or the football match he went to see?”
[Last January, Valletta and Fenech were revealed to be friends who had gone abroad to watch football matches together]
Victoria Buttigieg's legal advice
10.11am Cutajar thinks back to that legal battle and tells the inquiry that police had been advised to fight the case, “even after the family offered to drop it if Silvio Valletta was removed”.
Comodini Cachia: “Did that advice come from Victoria Buttigieg?”
Cutajar: “I think so”.
[Buttigieg was deputy attorney general at the time and will assume the post of attorney general later today].
10.08am Judge Said Pullicino says that it is now clear that one of Cutajar’s men was not doing their job.
But Cutajar contests that. “I don’t agree,” he says. “After a short while, the murder was solved and the suspects arraigned”.
Comodini Cachia pushes back: “Who solved the crime? Was it [Silvio] Valletta or the FBI? Who collected evidence from the scene of the crime?”
The lawyer reminds the witness that the Caruana Galizia family had filed – and won – a Constitutional case to have Valletta removed from the case.
“Even then, did you not suspect a conflict of interest?” she asks him.
17 Black and Yorgen Fenech
10.03am One of the judges asks what police did about 17 Black, and Cutajar’s ears prick up.
“We got that in March 2018 and it was investigated immediately,” he says, saying two members of the money laundering unit [‘Aquilina and Muscat’] led that probe.
Cutajar confirms what Ian Abdilla testified – that he was meant to meet Yorgen Fenech at Portomaso but then received a call from Silvio Valletta telling him the meeting was off.
“Yes, he told me that” Cutajar tells the inquiry. “I think it was 2019. I believe Valletta told him that Yorgen Fenech was unwell”.
Comodini Cachia: “Didn’t you question how Valletta knew that?”
A hammering by the judges
9.57am So what did Cutajar do about Operation Green?
“The evidence was still being gathered when I was [in the force],” he says. He again insists:
“Forgive me for repeating, but evidence must be gathered before people are summoned and disclosure is given”.
Cutajar's line of argument is irritating the judges.
Judge Said Pullicino notes that police can send for a person without placing him or her under caution.
Judge Abigail Lofaro: “Why didn’t you go for Nexia BT's servers? I’m not asking you about arrests. Just the servers. Was it because of the attorney general’s advice?”
Judge Mallia: “Emails were in the public domain. Didn’t you investigate?”
Judge Said Pullicino: “You could have spoken to people, tapped phones and servers belonging to the minister [Konrad Mizzi], [Keith] Schembri and so on.”
Judge Lofaro: "Don't tell us you lacked human resources! You had enough people!"
'This is a delaying tactic'
9.48am Cutajar is immediately pressed to say whether police summoned people involved in the case.
He returns to the argument he made when he first appeared before the inquiry last month - "first you have to gather evidence".
Judge Michael Mallia is unimpressed.
"You act on other crimes. This was a delaying tactic, as we see it. You did nothing while the rest of the world was up in arms."
Pilatus Bank investigations
9.43am The first question Cutajar faces is about investigations into Pilatus Bank.
He says the probe was named Operation Green and that the plan was to wait for FIAU reports and speak to foreign jurisdictions for information.
Cutajar says he would get updates from (former economic crimes chief) Ian Abdilla and (former deputy commissioner) Silvio Valletta.
Judge Said Pullicino asks Cutajar whether he spoke to the prime minister [Joseph Muscat] about this case. The witness says he did not.
9.42am The judges take their place and Cutajar walks to the witness stand, briefcase in hand. He takes the oath and the session begins.
Who's in court?
9.35am We’re in hall 20. Lawrence Cutajar is here, waiting patiently for the hearing to start. So too are Jason Azzopardi and Therese Comodini Cachia, the lawyers representing the Caruana Galizia family, and Maurizio Cordina from the State Advocate's office.
What happened last time?
9.28am Cutajar appeared before the inquiry last month. During his testimony, he:
- Emphasised that the attorney general had urged police to “exercise great caution” when investigating Konrad Mizzi
- Staunchly defended his track record as police commissioner
- Said a local bank ("I believe it was BOV") had refused to cooperate with police
- Admitted nobody had been charged in connection with the Panama Papers
- Said he and Joseph Muscat never discussed the Panama Papers
- Insisted protection for Daphne Caruana Galizia remained unchanged during his tenure
Want more detail? Read our minute-by-minute account of last month's testimony.
9.25am Good morning and welcome to this live blog. We're at the law courts in Valletta, where the Caruana Galizia inquiry will resume.
Lawrence Cutajar is expected to continue testifying today.