A judge’s timely reminder that getting back to normal is still a tough trek

Mr Justice Lawrence Mintoff’s scathing remarks on Keith Schembri’s conflict of interest are ostensibly, the strongest to be made by a respected member of the judiciary and are an indirect rebuke of Joseph Muscat

Cartoon by Mikiel Galea
Cartoon by Mikiel Galea

Mr Justice Lawrence Mintoff did not hold any punches when calling out the inappropriateness of having a businessperson like Keith Schembri directing the show at Castille. 

The judge lambasted Schembri for not disclosing his “fraternal” friendship with Yorgen Fenech as he sat in on highly sensitive briefings related to the police investigations into Daphne Caruana Galizia’s murder. 

Fenech stands charged with commissioning and paying for Caruana Galizia’s murder. He has denied the charges and the case against him is still in pre-trial stage. 

Mintoff was delivering judgment on a case initiated by Fenech in a bid to remove Superintendent Keith Arnaud from the murder case. The judge rejected Fenech’s attempt. 

But the judge went much further than simply dismantling Fenech’s case. Mintoff reflected on Fenech’s admission that he had allegedly been receiving sensitive information related to the murder investigation from former deputy commissioner Silvio Valletta and Schembri, finding it incredulous that Arnaud should be targeted in this way. 

Fenech had claimed Arnaud had a conflict of interest because Schembri found his wife a government job. 

The judge had nothing of this. “The court finds that if there was anyone who had a conflict of interest in the ensuing situation, it was Keith Schembri, who continued to attend briefings at Castille, even when Melvin Theuma’s pardon request was being discussed, without disclosing his ‘fraternal’ friendship between him and Yorgen Fenech, even after Yorgen Fenech became a suspect and his mobile phone was tapped by the Security Services.” 

Mintoff’s words could not be clearer on the inappropriateness of appointing someone like Schembri to such a powerful position inside the Office of the Prime Minister. 

“The court adds that it was inevitable that the appointment of a leading businessman in Malta as chief of staff at the Office of the Prime Minister, with all the entanglements and wide ranging contacts with the business world, would bring with it many situations of conflicting interests,” the judge said, adding that this had created serious doubts about whether, in such a delicate situation, Schembri’s personal interests would take the upper hand and prevail over the public interest. 

Mintoff’s scathing remarks on Schembri’s conflict of interest are ostensibly, the strongest to be made by a respected member of the judiciary and are an indirect rebuke of Joseph Muscat. 

Schembri was thrust into a powerful position by the former prime minister. Muscat trusted Schembri blindly and stuck by him even when the Panama Papers scandal broke and subsequently when it became known that 17 Black (which had been listed as a client company in paperwork for Schembri’s Panama company) belonged to Yorgen Fenech. 

The question now is what is the government going to do about a recommendation made by the judge that undisclosed conflicts of interest such as those attributed to Schembri should be criminalised. 

We will not hold our breath. Nothing will happen. The judge’s words will be forgotten and life will go on as normal. Schembri is out of the picture, they will tell us. Unfortunately, Muscat is not as Labour exponents continue to court him. 

But there are other questions that emerge from the 155-page judgment. What are the police doing about the people who allegedly leaked sensitive information about the murder investigation to Fenech? 

Mr Justice Mintoff was unequivocal in his assessment of these leaks and the danger they caused to the police officers and soldiers who raided the Marsa potato shed in December 2017 to arrest the three hitmen. 

“Whatever shortcomings might have occurred during the investigation into the murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia… it is highly disgraceful that Inspector Keith Arnaud (he was subsequently promoted to superintendent), because of other people’s conflicts of interest, was put in this pitiful position, where that which he was officially and confidentially reporting on during briefings at the OPM was revealed in the most villainous and disloyal manner, to the point where those arrested at the Marsa potato shed on December 4, 2017 had already been tipped off about their impending arrests. As a result, the lives of Inspector Arnaud and those colleagues of his in the police force and the army who participated in that raid, were placed in grave danger.” 

These strong words need to be backed up by action. If Fenech was receiving confidential police information, the people behind this gross breach of trust should be prosecuted. 

Although the judge defended Arnaud’s integrity, the ruling was also critical of the way police carried out their investigations. 

One of the issues flagged was how the police handled searches on Schembri’s property and the incident involving his ‘lost’ mobile phone. 

The judge pointed out that when police had searched Schembri’s Mellieha home, they had failed to also carry out a simultaneous search of his office at Castille and his other businesses. 

Mintoff observed that when Schembri was asked to provide the passwords for his cloud data to the police and he refused because it contained ‘commercially sensitive information’, the police meekly accepted the explanation. 

This police attitude of deference because the person in front of them was a powerful man is at best a display of spinelessness, and at worst collusion of the worst kind. 

Mr Justice Mintoff’s ruling was yet another reminder that the road back to normality is still a long one indeed.