Yorgen Fenech appeared before a parliamentary committee on Tuesday but exited the room without having uttered a word, with MPs agreeing to suspend his testimony until legal proceedings he faces are over.
Fenech was summoned to testify before the Public Accounts Committee about the Electrogas consortium and power station contract it was awarded by Enemalta, as part of the committee’s analysis of a 2018 National Audit Office report into the deal.
Parliament was placed on high alert for the event, with armed guards surrounding the parliament building and Fenech transported to the capital city in a bulletproof SUV, for what was his first public appearance outside court since his arrest in 2019.
The event itself, however, ended before it could begin.
As PAC chair Darren Carabott asked Fenech to take an oath and begin his testimony, Fenech’s lawyer Charles Mercieca asked the committee to suspend proceedings until four of Fenech’s court cases are concluded.
Fenech stands accused of complicity in the murder of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, who was investigating the Electrogas contract when she was murdered in October 2017.
Citing the UK parliamentary rule book Erskine May, Mercieca argued that parliamentary committees must suspend inquiries when a witness faces criminal charges related to their subject matter.
He told the committee that Fenech was willing to testify before the PAC – but not before cases he faces and which are related to the Electrogas contract are concluded.
Following a few minutes of deliberation, PAC members acceded to that request.
Fenech exited the room and parliament, grinning as he was escorted back into the armoured SUV and whisked back to Corradino prison.
As it happened
3.06pm The PAC hearing is over. The committee will resume proceedings next Tuesday.
Fenech exits the room
3.05pm It might be years before Fenech is seated in that chair again, and PAC chair Carabott makes a passing acknowledgement to that.
“If the cases are concluded during this legislature and I am still chair, we will certainly summon you to testify,” he tells Fenech.
Fenech nods, thanks the committee and exits the room along with his lawyers.
No testimony for now
3.03pm The PAC agrees to Fenech’s request.
Yorgen Fenech will not testify before the parliamentary committee until the four court cases his lawyers cited have been concluded.
Pending which cases?
3.01pm PAC chair Carabott wants Fenech's legal team to spell out which particular court cases Fenech wants wrapped up before he testifies in parliament.
Fenech is involved in a constellation of court cases, in all sorts of courts - criminal, civil, constitutional.
Mercieca lists four separate cases. He's a party in three of them and not in the fourth, Rosette Thake vs State Advocate (438/2021).
When Carabott asks if Fenech will be willing to testify before the PAC once these cases are over, Fenech nods vigorously.
Fenech and his lawyers exit the room while committee members discuss the request.
A formal request to suspend testimony
2.53pm The hearing resumes. Mercieca formally presents Fenech’s request to suspend his PAC testimony until criminal proceedings against him are concluded.
“According to the prosecution, the motive of the crime is the subject matter of this very committee,” Mercieca says. He quotes from Erskine May 38.25:
“Committees have suspended inquiries in progress because a witness had been charged with criminal offences related to the subject-matter of the inquiry or have decided not to take evidence from particular witnesses in the course of an inquiry because the committee had been informed that the witnesses would also be witnesses in impending criminal or civil proceedings.”
[The section Mercieca quotes from also notes that evidence in such cases can be taken in private.]
Mercieca says they want Fenech not to testify before the committee "at this stage."
You can read the full extract of that Erskine May reference here.
Print-outs handed out
2.46pm We’re close to resuming: Fenech’s team has returned with print-outs of the rulings they cited, which they are now distributing to committee members.
What was Caruana Galizia probing?
2.42pm We know that Daphne Caruana Galizia was investigating a massive data leak of Electrogas documents when she was murdered.
Among the things she was looking into was an offshore company 17 Black, and its ties to offshore firms owned by top government officials Keith Schembri and Konrad Mizzi.
Caruana Galizia was killed in October 2017, before she could complete her investigation. But a group of journalists from several news organisations, including Times of Malta, did its best to build on her work.
Those tricky Roman numerals
2.35pm The hearing is currently suspended, while Fenech’s lawyers try to dig up copies of the parliamentary rulings that Mercieca made reference to.
They hand Fenech some papers. There’s some energetic whispering going on – it seems they’re working out Roman numerals.
Carabott offers Fenech and his lawyers the opportunity to discuss the rulings in private. They accept the offer and exit the room for 10 minutes.
2.28pm Clayton Bartolo timidly wants to intervene. But it appears he’s given up.
Glenn Bedingfield asks for clarity – what is it that Fenech and his lawyers are asking for? Mercieca makes it clear that they want Fenech’s testimony suspended, not cancelled - suspended until criminal proceedings against him are concluded.
The PAC chair, Carabott, suspends the session while Mercieca provides him with copies of parliamentary rulings he cited while making his case.
Was Electrogas the motive?
2.25pm PAC chair Darren Carabott makes the point that the committee is looking into the way Enemalta awarded contracts to Electrogas. Is the alleged motive in the Caruana Galizia case linked to that?
Mercieca cites a constitutional case that Fenech is involved in, in which the court said the alleged motive was suspected corruption in the Electrogas deal.
As the lawyers discuss, Yorgen Fenech appears eager to get involved. He’s swinging in his chair, occasionally leaning forward and whispering to both his lawyers.
Lawyers don't want Fenech to testify now
2.21pm Before Fenech can take an oath, his lawyer Charles Mercieca interjects – he doesn’t want his client to testify until criminal proceedings against him are concluded.
Mercieca cites the parliamentary ‘bible’, Erskine May, which notes that committees have suspended proceedings when a witness faces criminal charges related to the matter being investigated.
2.17pm The committee hearing begins. Fenech is summoned. He walks in, accompanied by four or five heavily armed guards.
His lawyers Gianluca Caruana Curran and Charles Mercieca sit on either side of him.
MPs in the room
2.12pm Committee members are taking their seats, but there’s still no sign of Fenech or his legal team. The armoured vehicle that he was transported in has been parked outside parliament for well over 20 minutes, and armed guards are outside the parliament building.
PAC chair Darren Carabott is accompanied by Opposition colleagues Robert Cutajar and Graham Bencini.
On the government side we have MPs Andy Ellul, Glenn Bedingfield, Clayton Bartolo and Naomi Cachia.
A years-long process
2pm It’s been a years-long road to get here: the NAO released its report into the Electrogas deal back in 2018. But it would take another 18 months for the report to make it to the PAC agenda and MPs only started discussing the NAO report in December 2020: that’s practically two-and-a-half years ago.
Since then, we’ve seen countless witnesses – from Konrad Mizzi and Keith Schembri to Fenech’s business partner Paul Apap Bologna and uncle Ray Fenech. But we have never heard from Fenech himself.
1.56pm For those of you catching up: Fenech, an heir to the Tumas business empire, was a director of the Electrogas consortium that was awarded a lucrative contract to build and run a gas-fired power plant in Delimara.
The deal was questionable and a National Audit Office report flagged several inconsistencies within it.
Daphne Caruana Galizia was combing through a leak of Electrogas documents when she was killed in 2017. Fenech was arrested in late 2019 in connection with that murder.
1.50pm Good afternoon and welcome to this live blog. We'll be bringing you live updates from Yorgen Fenech's testimony before the PAC. Today’s committee hearing is scheduled to begin at 2pm.