Too late, but not too little

Nonetheless, the fact that the machinery of justice has finally sprung into action – even if so late in the day – remains an important step in the direction of proper institutional reform. It might be ‘too late’; but it is certainly not ‘too little’

It is often said that ‘justice delayed is justice denied’; and yesterday’s arrest of Keith Schembri – coming as it did more than three years after the alleged crime took place – appears to be a classic case in point.

The arrest comes after the Attorney General asked the court to impose a freezing order on all Schembri’s assets, including those of his immediate family and companies, in connection with allegations that surfaced in early 2017: namely, that Schembri had received €100,000 in kickbacks from Nexia BT’s Brian Tonna – who, together with associate Karl Cini, is also being detained by the police – over the sale of Maltese citizenship to a Russian family.

Already, then, it can be seen that yesterday’s action comes somewhat late in the day. Three full years ago, assassinated journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia had reported that Tonna’s BT International, an accredited agent of the Individual Investor Programme, had handled the purchase of Maltese citizenship for a Russian family. Using his own Willerby Trade as an introducer, Tonna invoiced BT International for 50% of the fees. Caruana Galizia said he passed on 50% of that fee to Keith Schembri’s accounts at Pilatus Bank and the Bank of Valletta.

Though the latter allegation, on its own, would not have been enough to warrant an arrest at the time, the documentary evidence presented in court by Opposition leader Simon Busuttil in May 2017 – including an FIAU report describing the transaction as being of “highly suspicious nature” – should clearly have precipitated a full-blown criminal investigation.

Instead, there was a magisterial inquiry which lasted three years; and which, in turn, was only one of five magisterial inquiries launched that year into allegations of government corruption.

Others included an inquiry into alleged links between Panama-registered company Egrant and the Prime Minister; another into the FIAU leak of compliance reports about Pilatus Bank; another into the leak of a preliminary FIAU report on Pilatus Bank to the former Police Commissioner Michael Cassar; and yet another into allegations of money laundering by Keith Schembri and Adrian Hillman through Pilatus Bank.

Yet all along, we witnessed how the entire machinery of criminal justice in this country – including the Police Force under former Commissioner Lawrence Cutajar, and the office of then-Attorney General Peter Grech – bent over backwards in their efforts to avoid taking action: not just in this specific case, but also with regard to the Panama Papers scandal of April 2016, with the implicit corruption, then not yet known, surrounding the Electrogas deal.

As such, it comes as no surprise that both the arrest of Keith Schembri, and the freezing of his assets, had to wait until both the Police Commissioner and Attorney General were replaced over the past few months. And this alone underlines the risk of institutions being captured by partisan loyalties, or the overweening influence of people like Keith Schembri when he was still Prime Minister Joseph Muscat’s chief of staff.

In fact, it is only today – and even then, only as a result of a public inquiry that government now seems keen on ending as quickly as possible – that we know the full extent of Schembri’s influence on top police brass over the past three years.

Even at the time, however, it was an open secret (later emphatically confirmed during the Daphne Caruana Galizia inquiry hearings) that Schembri was instrumental to all the actions and decisions by the Muscat administration. The investigation into his alleged graft and money laundering – even though limited, so far, only to this one case – therefore casts a dark, dark shadow over a host of other government decisions before late 2019: from passport sales, to Electrogas, to Vitals, to Mozura, to Cafe Premier...

All of which raises the question: how much more of the Muscat administration (apart from what we already know) has also been compromised by Schembri? And to what extent can Muscat himself be omitted from the cloud of suspicion: given that he fully defended his chief of staff through thick and thin, and presided over an institutional rot that was clearly designed to protect his own government?

If nothing else, it is clearly time to abolish such posts of far-reaching influence, and introduce rules that can curtail the influence of so-called ‘chiefs of staff’ or ‘heads of secretariat’ or persons of trust; whilst also protecting civil servants who could be placed under undue pressure by these same people from committing actions that are not conducive to good governance.

Nonetheless, the fact that the machinery of justice has finally sprung into action – even if so late in the day – remains an important step in the direction of proper institutional reform. It might be ‘too late’; but it is certainly not ‘too little’.