- Investigators probe payments totalling €60,000 from two Swiss companies including one previously called 'VGH Europe'; ex-PM insists payments were for legitimate work;
- Muscat was involved in talks for a failed bid to take over Crystal Palace FC;
- Steward Health Care, Gozo medical school contractor feature in Swiss money trail;
- Muscat got close to €482,000 in various consultancy payments in year of resignation;
- Konrad Mizzi's house was searched, phone seized.
A corruption probe into former prime minister Joseph Muscat has been combing through his bank accounts and income declarations for evidence of wrongdoing in the hospitals' deal.
According to his 2020 tax return, Muscat declared close to €482,000 in earnings from various consultancy work in the year he resigned as prime minister.
The earnings were covered by a flurry of consultancy contracts Muscat signed in the weeks and months after resigning.
These consultancy contracts netted him €482,000 in professional earnings alone, although these were offset by €260,000 in expense claims.
He also declared €140,000 in income from his pay as a member of parliament and the controversial severance package given to him after he quit as prime minister.
Muscat gave up his parliamentary seat in October that year.
Investigators suspect that one consultancy contract with Swiss company SpringX Media, which netted Muscat €60,000, could have been used as a vehicle to disguise payments from the "fraudulent" hospitals deal, in plain sight.
Muscat vehemently denies this is the case, insisting the money paid to him by the company was for legitimate work.
He further claimed that there is no investigation into his finances, as to his knowledge, the inquiry is looking into his contract with SpringX Media.
Times of Malta first revealed the existence of the contract in 2021.
Accutor Consulting was previously 'VGH Europe'
Investigators are probing whether a potentially bogus consultancy contract was drawn up to justify the €60,000 in consultancy payments Muscat received from SpringX Media and another company registered at the same Swiss address called Accutor Consulting.
Although Muscat denies any link between the payments and Vitals, research by Times of Malta shows how Accutor Consulting used to be called VGH Europe.
A former Accutor executive, who declined to be named due to ongoing Swiss investigations into Accutor's sudden bankcruptcy, said VGH Europe formed part of plans to expand Vital's presence in other parts of Europe.
Mark Pawley, the former director of VGH Malta, also indicated this was the case, telling Times of Malta's media partners OCCRP that VGH Europe was set up by fellow director Ram Tumuluri as part of plans he made "to move to Switzerland".
Tumuluri, speaking via his lawyer, said that Accutor was appointed to help expand "the VGH Group into Europe".
VGH Europe's name was switched to Accutor Consulting in January 2018, shortly before Steward Health Care took over the running of the St Luke's, Karin Grech and Gozo hospitals from VGH in Malta.
The consultancy contract would have allowed Muscat to receive a total of 36 separate €15,000 monthly payments, totalling €540,000.
However, the payments halted abruptly after just four months, with Muscat receiving a total of €60,000 from SpringX Media and Accutor Consulting.
How money flowed
Financial records reviewed by Times of Malta as part of the 'Hospitals X-Rayed' investigation with the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) and The Shift show a significant flow of funds from Steward Health Care to Accutor.
The records cover the periods from October 2015 to January 2020.
Steward Health Care paid €5.9 million to various Swiss companies run by Accutor owner Wasay Bhatti, the man who 'hired' Muscat as his consultant.
Among these payments was a total of €500,000 wired to Accutor Consulting between March 2019 and January 2020.
According to the payment descriptions, the money wired to Accutor Consulting by Steward was for "consulting services".
In January 2020, Muscat signed up as a "consultant" to Bhatti, a few weeks after resigning as prime minister.
The consultancy deal has placed Muscat under the lens of a magisterial inquiry into corruption linked to the hospitals' deal.
Investigators suspect that Accutor Consulting and other companies linked to Bhatti could have been used as part of a layering process, to hide the original origins of funds linked to the Malta hospitals.
Bhatti did not respond to specific questions about VGH Europe.
Muscat said he was "not aware" of the extent of Steward's payments to Accutor.
He added that he has no way of verifying the information put to him by Times of Malta about the payments by Steward to Bhatti's companies.
Steward insists the payments to Accutor were for "legitimate business services" provided by the Swiss company.
"Commercial confidentiality agreements and GDPR laws prohibit us from disclosing precise details of the payments to Accutor," a Steward spokesperson said.
The Accutor money trail also leads to the Sicilian contractors who were paid €15 million by Steward Health Care to build the new Gozo medical school.
Financial transactions reviewed by Times of Malta show how contractors Sirimed paid money to Accutor AG, a Swiss company based at the address of Accutor Consulting.
Action against high-profile individuals expected
Police seized documents and devices seized from Muscat during a search of his home and office in January 2022 triggered by the magisterial inquiry into VGH.
DF Advocates, the lawyers for VGH Malta, Steward Health Care and a government entity have also been targeted by police searches and seizures.
Ex-minister Konrad Mizzi and Muscat’s chief of staff Keith Schembri also feature in the probe.
The inquiry is expected to recommend action against high-profile individuals.
One government source said Prime Minister Robert Abela is wary of the inquiry's outcome, as he is well aware of the meltdown within the Labour Party that high-profile arrests and possible prosecutions could cause.
Sources briefed on developments said police commissioner Angelo Gafá has resisted carrying out any arrests before the ongoing magisterial inquiry into the deal has been concluded, and all the evidence gathered during the four-year probe handed to the police.
Although the police can carry out their own investigations, much of the investigative work has been outsourced to a team of local and foreign experts assembled by inquiring magistrate Gabriella Vella.
According to the ex-Accutor executive and one other former high-ranking employee, Accutor records were frequently shredded by the company, with bags of documents regularly leaving their Zurich offices.
When contacted about the document shredding, Bhatti said: “[as] per strict Swiss privacy laws and given the nature of business… we had very sensitive data and there were legal protocols that the team followed.”
Investigators in Switzerland have been questioning Accutor staff as part of a separate probe over fraud suspicions linked to the firm’s sudden closure in 2020 on bankruptcy grounds.
Like Muscat, two key figures involved in Vitals, Shaukat Ali and his son Asad, were also put on the payroll as “consultants” of companies run by Bhatti.
Shaukat Ali was a signatory to the secret memorandum of understanding with the government that led a court to annul the hospital contract on fraud grounds.
He told Times of Malta that the memorandum of understanding was superseded by another agreement that he was not a party to.
Ali said he was employed by Accutor as a “senior advisor” and received salary payments from the Swiss company.
He further added that he was never part of the VGH group as either an investor or shareholder.
Transactions records, however, show that Ali and companies associated with him received over €5 million in consultancy payments from VGH.
Schembri’s visit to Accutor
Muscat’s chief of staff Keith Schembri is also considered a person of interest in the Vitals probe.
An e-mail lodged as evidence by Steward Health Care in a Maltese court case indicates that Schembri directed Steward’s takeover of Vitals – using a private e-mail address -– together with the Alis.
Schembri is known to have visited Accutor’s Swiss offices, with one company insider saying the visit came while he was still serving in government.
Bhatti confirmed the visit, saying Schembri introduced his “food company” and checked if Accutor could help it grow in other European countries.
“Which we couldn’t, as this was not our strength. We did also speak about our IT capabilities,” Bhatti said.
No direct Accutor payments to Schembri have been traced by the ongoing probe.
According to Muscat, it was Schembri who had first introduced him to Bhatti, with his then-chief of staff saying he was an “investor in Malta”.
Schembri denied any accusations of wrongdoing, when contacted.
Konrad Mizzi's home searched, phone seized
Konrad Mizzi has also fallen under the inquiry’s lens, with investigators seeking to detect any suspect payments to the ex-health minister, who was responsible for the Vitals deal.
His home has been searched as part of the probe, and his smartphone confiscated by police.
Bhatti has acknowledged being introduced to Mizzi in Malta “during various events through the business community” but denies ever having any dealings with him.
In a court decision last month, the Vitals deal was annulled on fraud grounds.
An Auditor General report published on Monday accused Mizzi of "misleading cabinet" over a €100 million side deal signed with Steward. Mizzi denies wrongdoing.
Medical school contractors paid Accutor
The investigation by Times of Malta and other media partners, and supported by research from the Daphne Caruana Galizia Foundation, found that the Sicilian contractor behind the construction of the Gozo medical school also paid money to Accutor AG.
The medical school, inaugurated by Muscat in November 2019, was built as part of what a court has described as the government’s “fraudulent” deal with Vitals Global Healthcare.
Steward Health Care paid Sicilian contractors Sirimed a total of €15 million between 2018 and 2020 for works on the medical school.
Documents show that in August 2018, Sirimed wired €250,000 to Accutor AG.
An Accutor source said a second Sirimed payment of €250,000 took place the following year.
Muscat told Times of Malta that he was not aware of the Sirimed payments to Accutor.
"I was made aware by yourself. Dr Bhatti told me Sirimed was a client of his company in the Gulf region," Muscat said.
Bhatti said when contacted that the Sirimed account was "won by Asad [Ali] and he was managing it".
Asad's Maltese company Eurasia also received payments from Steward in connection with the medical school built by Sirimed.
The Sicilian contractors were brought in to salvage works on the school, after the original contractors, Shapoorji Pallonji, downed tools on the Gozo site due to a dispute with Vitals over money.
These multiple delays put pressure on the government, with Muscat having pledged a world-class medical campus in Gozo would be up and running by September 2016.
The delays forced the government to greenlight emergency refurbishment works at the Victoria sixth form to host students who had already signed up to follow a medical course in Gozo.
Sirimed is majority owned by Giuseppe Rifici. The company has featured in two different corruption investigations by prosecutors in Catania and Palermo, according to research by media partners IRPI.
In the first probe, prosecutors investigated the tenders won by Sirimed at the Garibaldi hospital in Sicily, over suspicions of bribery.
Wiretaps revealed how Sirimed and a Chinese medical supplier appeared to have conspired to corrupt a doctor at the hospital to tailor a tender for it to win.
The investigation found that the doctor was taken to a €2,000 dinner and also promised that he would have several trips financed for him by the company.
Call intercepts also have Rifici speaking to the owner of the Catania restaurant where the dinner was held.
The doctor admitted to the charges and negotiated a plea deal, while the Sirimed employee escaped prosecution.
In the second investigation, Rifici was named by a collaborating witness as someone who had managed to “gain favour” at a hospital in Palermo.
The wider investigation was looking into a corruption ring linked to the regional government in Sicily. No charges were ever bought against Rifici.
Rifici did not respond to a request for comment by IRPI.
Corporate documents show that Rifici is partnered with Ivan Vassallo in a Maltese company called Siriline.
Vassallo is one of the persons of interest in the ongoing Vitals magisterial inquiry.
His company, Technoline, was given exclusive medical procurement rights by Vitals.
One source familiar with Sirimed’s involvement in Malta said it was Vassallo who connected the Sicilian contractor to the people running the hospitals.
Vassallo did not respond to a request for comment.
Joseph Muscat... and an attempted Crystal Palace FC buyout
The investigation by Times of Malta and its partners has also uncovered Muscat’s involvement in a failed deal led by Wasay Bhatti to buy Crystal Palace FC, a mid-tier English premier league team.
As part of the deal, notarised Accutor accounts were provided in 2019 as proof that the Swiss company had the necessary capital to acquire the club.
Despite the accounts showing a healthy balance, Accutor declared bankruptcy just a few months later.
When contacted, Muscat said he was asked to “monitor the situation” on Bhatti’s behalf with regards to his interest in a group involved in takeovers within the football industry.
“I was involved towards the end of the deal with Crystal Palace as it fell through," he said.
He said the fact that he was involved in the deal belies the idea that his contract with Accutor was a bogus one.
Last year, Muscat was made president of the Malta Professional Football Clubs Association.