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[WATCH] An election about fundamental principles | Beppe Fenech Adami

Nationalist Party Deputy Leader Beppe Fenech Adami argues that this election is an opportunity to 'do the right thing', and bring back fundamental principles to Maltese politics

raphael_vassallo
Raphael Vassallo
14 May 2017, 9:36am
Nationalist Party Deputy Leader Beppe Fenech Adami
Nationalist Party Deputy Leader Beppe Fenech Adami
This election has been described as ‘unlike any other’, in that it is overshadowed by serious corruption allegations reaching all the way up to the Prime Minister. Do you agree with that assessment? What are you expecting to come out from the magisterial inquiry with regard to those allegations (namely, Egrant) which remain unproven at this stage?

First of all, I would like to say that it is not just a matter of allegations. There are also a number of facts which have been established. It is a fact that Konrad Mizzi and Keith Schembri have secret companies in Panama. It is a fact that they tried to hide these companies behind a trust in New Zealand. It is a fact that Konrad Mizzi and Keith Schembri were seeking to open bank accounts for these companies, to deposit in them a million euros a year coming from consultations and other services. It is a fact that these matters were investigated by the FIAU, and there are reports recommending criminal proceedings for money laundering, at least against Keith Schembri. It is a fact that our Prime Minister has been defending these persons for the last year. It is a fact that Joseph Muscat has gone all the way to defend these persons, knowing that they were causing a lot of harm to his government, his party, to himself, to the country... to the extent that we are going to an election a year early. It is no longer a matter of allegations. These are facts which, standing alone, are enough to get Joseph Muscat out of politics. With regard to…

Is it a fact that Michelle Muscat is the ultimate beneficiary owner of Egrant, though? Because that was the most calamitous allegation, made very dramatically by the Opposition leader on live TV. If true, it would land the Prime Minister in prison. So far, however, it remains unproven.

I was coming to that. There is a third company by the name of Egrant that was set up at the same time, by the same person, using the same infrastructure in the same country, with all measures taken to make it a secret company. Behind it there is Brian Tonna, who is a consultant to the Prime Minister. And though you say there is no evidence...  there is a witness. To my knowledge there is a witness who tendered her evidence before the inquiring magistrate; evidence given by a witness is always taken into consideration by any court.

I understand, from what is public knowledge, that the witness has produced documents indicating that Michelle Muscat, the wife of the prime minister, is the ultimate beneficiary owner of Egrant [...] that is evidence which is admissible in a court of law. So when you say there is no evidence, you are not exactly correct. What is very, very strange in this case is that the Prime Minister is saying that he would resign, if it results that he is the owner of this company in Panama.

However, as a state of fact, you already have a minister and his chief of staff who do have companies in Panama. This is not a matter of opinion: everybody accepts that. How do you reconcile this situation? A Prime Minister defending two persons who have a company in Panama; while saying that he himself would resign, if it results he has a company in Panama. It’s a matter of credibility as well. He is using different weights and measures. In a very unexplainable way, Joseph Muscat keeps defending Konrad Mizzi and Keith Schembri. I am sure the people who are listening ask this question: why does Muscat keep defending these two persons, when it is very clear that they are the reason for this meltdown? The reason why we are heading for an election a year early, in the middle of the European Council Presidency, just four years after a massive victory of 36,000 votes?

To clarify the earlier question: no one questions that Konrad Mizzi, Keith Schembri and Brian Tonna are owners of secret companies in Panama. My question concerned Egrant. If the document you mention – of which only a transcript has so far been seen – proves to be fake... what would happen to the PN, which threw such weight behind the allegation?

The story about the documents coming out, in which Michelle Muscat is indicated, are documents produced by a witness as evidence before a magistrate. I think it’s nearly secondary at this stage. 

Is it...?

Give me a second. We have a Prime Minister who defends two persons who have all the misgivings, wrongdoings related to Panama. That alone, in itself, is enough to make Joseph Muscat leave politics. You cannot have a Prime Minister who defends people, when we all know there are reports recommending criminal procedures against them with regard to money-laundering, proceeds from crime, and all that...

And kickbacks...

And kickbacks. When you have a Prime Minister who is defending his chief of staff till the end. It does not make sense.  People question this: why does the Prime Minister have to defend Keith Schembri to the end? There are no two ways about it. Keith Schembri is a person under investigation for criminal acts...

All the same, PN leader Simon Busuttil initially described the magisterial inquiry as a ‘sham’. Yet he went on to submit evidence to the same inquiry. Isn’t this a contradiction?

No, absolutely not. I’d say that the magisterial inquiry is prejudiced because it started many hours after the story broke out. I am sure the inquiring magistrate will do his best. I am sure he is competent and honest. However, the inquiry is prejudiced because there were crucial hours until the appointment of the magistrate. It was all public, there for all to see. We had a situation where you had very, very grave accusations being made; and we had a Police Commissioner not going to investigate immediately, and make sure that the evidence is not tampered with, removed or destroyed. It took hours... I am sure you are aware that the initial hours after a crime story pops up are crucial in terms of conservation of evidence, to make sure you arrive at the truth. The magistrate is an honest and competent guy, but Joseph Muscat spent hours before going to the magistrate. Those hours can be crucial in the determination of the truth or not.

But the evidence you are now talking about concerns Egrant. That was what was supposedly in the suitcase. Yet we seem to be moving away from that allegation. Let me ask the question bluntly: is the PN worried that there might not be enough evidence for that allegation, and is now trying to shift the terrain away from Egrant?

I beg to differ, because the story broke out, then what came onto the scene was the Pilatus Bank. It is very evident that this bank serviced a number of, I would say, very shady characters. So you are not correct in saying that the story broke out with regard to Egrant. The story concerned an unknown bank, at least until the story broke out...

It is certainly known now...

... Pilatus Bank, and I repeat again: there were crucial hours when investigations could have gone one way. However, we saw them... we could see that people went into Pilatus Bank, spent long hours there, removed what had to be removed... I am sure that those missing hours of investigation could have prejudiced the investigation.

All this points towards an institutional breakdown. And there are other indications: the Attorney General came out to say he has no competence to initiate prosecutions. Don’t we have an independent prosecutor’s office in Malta? This suggests that very basic reforms promised by the PN 30 years ago – the separation of powers – remained unimplemented. How can we therefore expect the same party to implement them now?

What we have today is a collapse of the institutions, and that is a very serious situation. When you have a Police Commissioner who refuses to investigate criminals, that is indicative of a system that is collapsing. Is it the PN’s fault? I would say no. Our problem is that we never thought we would go back to the bad old days.  We had 25 years in government: we were not perfect, we made our mistakes, but we never had an institutional crisis to this extent... when you have serious allegations and the police literally refuse... REFUSE... to take action against such persons. The big challenge, for us, is to make sure any reforms we implement would be foolproof, in the sense that anyone who intends to weaken such institutions would not be able to do so. That is our commitment, and I hope that the people will give us their support to get this message through.

There is however an irony in all this. Your name cropped up in connection with another alleged crime that the police did not investigate to the full. You are fiduciary director of Baltimore Inc, which was briefly under investigation over transactions involving Capital One... until the case was dropped locally.  Isn’t this also a case of the police not investigating politicians?

I can assure you that after this story cropped up in MaltaToday, I underwent a full investigation by a panel of three retired judges. They investigated for four months, and they came out with a report clearly stating that I was in no way involved in any of these allegations. I have been cleared by this report of any involvement in anything that is in any way sinister. But I add to that that in the last four years I have never been spoken to by any police officer; I have never been asked to say anything about this matter. These are four years under a Labour government. So you can say: how come nothing happened when you were parliamentary assistant? I tell you, when I was parliamentary assistant, the story never cropped up. I was never made aware of anything. But what’s more important is that, after four years of a Labour government I have never been questioned about it. Because the reality is that I have nothing to answer for. There is nothing, I emphasise, nothing – and this is proven by the inquiry report – that somehow implicates me in any other matter.

You are being defensive about the allegations, but the question concerned the inaction of the police (regardless of whether allegations are true or not). Did the police not proceed because you were, at the time, parliamentary assistant for home affairs?

 The report even says that the investigation was stopped because an inquiry made by a foreign police force was withdrawn, saying they were not interested in pursuing matters. To implicate that I influenced some foreign police force to stop investigating me is a long shot. [...] may I recall also that the police officer [Michael Cassar] who investigated me, was later appointed as Police Commissioner by Joseph Muscat following the last election. I can assure you again, at no point was I approached to clarify questions of this matter ever since. 

The issue however concerns the autonomy of the police force. Let’s face it, we have a Police Commissioner who is directly appointed by the Prime Minister. Today’s opposition may one day become tomorrow’s government. Isn’t it simply that the police are afraid of politicians? Isn’t it high time we had a truly autonomous police force?

That is exactly what we are promising to do. We need to change the manner in which such important posts are nominated. Insofar as the Police Commissioner is concerned, we are committed to go through a nomination process. This means we shall have a Police Commissioner who will go through a parliamentary grilling, and ideally approved by two-thirds majority...

A question about the campaign. The message emanating from Labour is clearly emphasising unity and reconciliation. This seems ironic, given that those were rallying cries by Eddie Fenech Adami, your father, around 1987. Has the PN become too divisive? Has the Opposition’s militancy and belligerence given Labour the opportunity to play the ‘reconciliation’ card: once the PN’s? 

Absolutely not... the PN is today coming forward as part of a ‘Forza Nazzjonali’ – that means that people can come together even though they do not agree on everything. I think the wonderful experience I am going through at the moment – that the PN is going through – is that yes, we can work together with so many people. Other parties as well. Why not? We agree on many things, we do not agree on everything, but we can create a Forza Nazzjonali: a front with people of different ideas, who agree on fundamentals. This is an election about fundamental principles. Namely, the rule of law. We have a situation where a bunch of, I would refer to them as crooks, have taken over the Labour Party, occupied Castille, and thrown all those wonderful promises to the dogs.

Remember? Meritocracy, ‘you can agree with us’, ‘we will fight a war against corruption’... But three years down the line, three people have hijacked Castille, and have brought about a situation where we have a Forza Nazzjonali: a wide spectrum of people coming from walks of life – including another party, PD – who are united on principles. It is not right to have a small number of, I would say crooks, who have taken over this country. This Forza Nazzjonali is a wonderful experience, with many people even coming from the PL to join forces with this umbrella group that is determined to bring back the fundamentals to this country.

Yet the rhetoric emanating from the PN – from the central administration, down to the grassroots – is undeniably divisive. Salvu Mallia, a PN candidate, recently compared Joseph Muscat to Adolf Hitler. There have been comments that the prime minister’s children should be institutionalised... are you comfortable with this facet of the PN? I ask because I am concerned that we are dangerously close to 1980s levels of political hatred...

I do not condone any messages of hatred. I dissociate myself from and totally condemn any statements insofar as Joseph Muscat’s children are concerned. Let’s keep children out of this campaign. But I must say I was on the receiving end, too. I had posts saying that ‘God sent me cancer because I am the most cruel person around.’ Another post, just two days ago, said that I got cancer in my shoulder so I wouldn’t be able to clap for Simon Busuttil, or something along those lines.

I laugh it off. God does not send cancer: that’s my message to the guy who told me that. So it goes both ways; but I don’t think we should go the way of ‘they did it, so we can do it’. I’m not justifying it. My appeal to everyone is that we are not here to spread hatred. We are here to try and do the right thing. Honestly... I spoke about my personal experience: the easiest thing for me to do is just walk away. I don’t need this. Many people would describe my very active participation in politics as madness, given the personal circumstances I found myself in. I honestly want to send the message out there that my colleagues and I are doing this because we believe we are here to do the right thing. We are here to do our duty, and to do the right thing.