Yorgen Fenech and Keith Schembri never questioned on 17 Black, former police chief tells Caruana Galizia inquiry

Lawrence Cutajar defends police decision not to question 17 Black main suspects, insisting police were still gathering evidence as he testifies in the Daphne Caruana Galizia public inquiry

Former police chief Lawrence Cutajar exiting court this morning after testifying in the Caruana Galizia public inquiry
Former police chief Lawrence Cutajar exiting court this morning after testifying in the Caruana Galizia public inquiry

Police never questioned Yorgen Fenech and Keith Schembri on Dubai company 17 Black, former police commissioner Lawrence Cutajar told the Caruana Galizia public inquiry.

Cutajar said the police had received information on 17 Black in March 2018, a full eight months before Fenech’s ownership of the Dubai company was outed in the media.

But Cutajar defended the police’s actions, insisting evidence had to be collected before anyone could be interrogated.

Cutajar continued testifying this morning in the public inquiry probing the murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia.

The former police chief said the 17 Black information started being investigated immediately.

The information is understood to have come from an intelligence report filed by the Financial Intelligence and Analysis Unit.

Cutajar said two inspectors – Ray Aquilina and Antonovic Muscat – were investigating the case and information was sought from banks in the Netherlands, Switzerland, Montenegro, China and the UAE.

However, when pressed as to why Fenech was not spoken to about 17 Black, Cutajar insisted the police needed to have evidence in hand for disclosure purposes.

“As far as I’m aware, the 17 Black investigations are still ongoing, let alone at that early stage,” Cutajar responded.

In November 2018, Reuters had identified Fenech as the owner of 17 Black, which had been listed as a target client for the Panama companies opened by Konrad Mizzi and Keith Schembri.

Fenech’s connection to 17 Black placed the company at the centre of the Electrogas deal that was mired in corruption allegations.

When testifying last March, the former head of the Economic Crimes Unit, Ian Abdilla, said he was going to question Fenech about 17 Black in November 2018.

However, Abdilla had told the board that deputy police commissioner Silvio Valletta had informed him that Fenech was sick and could not be questioned. Abdilla’s testimony raised eyebrows because the police did not call Fenech to the police depot for questioning but on Valletta’s suggestion, opted to go to Fenech’s Portomaso office.

It later emerged that Valletta was a friend with Fenech, had dined with him at his ranch and also gone abroad with him to watch a football game.

Asked about the Fenech interrogation incident, Cutajar told the judges that he did not ask why Valletta was aware that Fenech was unwell.

Cutajar told the inquiry that he only found out about Valletta’s and Fenech’s friendship after the recordings came out. 

Asked whether it was normal for a police official to know if a person of interest is unwell, Cutajar said he did not ask about the matter. 

“I didn't ask. I didn't feel I should ask,” he reiterated.

In the previous sitting Alfred Camilleri, the veteran permanent secretary in the finance ministry recounted how as the government faced massive protests last December, Konrad Mizzi has asked Camilleri to say that he was 'not involved.' 

READ MORE: Caruana Galizia inquiry: ‘Look me in the eye, say I’m not involved,’ Konrad Mizzi told finance ministry official

The public inquiry into the murder of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia is tasked with, amongst other things, determining whether the State did all it could to prevent the murder from happening.

Caruana Galizia was murdered in a car bomb just outside her Bidnija home on 16 October 2017. Three men, George Degiorgio, Alfred Degiorgio and Vince Muscat, have been charged with carrying out the assassination, while Yorgen Fenech is charged with masterminding the murder.

Melvin Theuma, who acted as a middleman between Fenech and the three killers, was granted a presidential pardon last year to tell all.

The inquiry is led by retired judge Michael Mallia, and includes former chief justice Joseph Said Pullicino and Judge Abigail Lofaro.

11:40 That's all for today. Thank you for following. Kurt Sansone
11:31 Before the board adjourns to Friday, Azzopardi says he wants to make a submission behind closed doors. The permission is granted. Kurt Sansone
11:29 The board notes that there has been no reply yet by the Prime Minister to the communication sent to him in the last sitting. This despite being physically and electronically notified. The issue concerns the extension to the inquiry’s term. Kurt Sansone
11:27 Cutajar has finished testifying. Kurt Sansone
11:27 Cutajar: “I don't remember. What I know is that that on that same evening, the inquiry started. At the time the police had stood guard outside the bank as it was night time and the next morning the police moved in.” Kurt Sansone
11:26 Azzopardi points out that the country was in uproar after the Pilatus Bank owner was seen leaving the bank premises at night. “Did you have occasion to speak to the AG in view of that which happened?” Kurt Sansone
11:25 Cutajar: “I thought of any consequences applicable if you do not follow the advice of the AG. Nobody's perfect, but if there is something which I did nothing wrong in was this - you do not take action contrary to the advice you are given.” Kurt Sansone
11:24 Jason Azzopardi says he was intrigued and shocked at Cutajar’s reply that Valletta had told him that he had spoken to the AG. “You know, Mr Cutajar, that one of the police's primary duties is the preservation of evidence. Another one is to prevent the commission of crimes. When told that the AG, Peter Grech, had spoken to Valletta, was there any communication between you and the AG in those 24 hours?” Kurt Sansone
11:22 Cutajar says he didn't wake up in the morning and decide to issue a statement but had done so after speaking to the investigators. “What is most likely is that the FIAU reports had not yet arrived,” he says. Kurt Sansone
11:22 Azzopardi: “What led you to say that there were no grounds for investigation?” Kurt Sansone
11:21 Cutajar: “I don't know.” Kurt Sansone
11:21 Azzopardi reads out a press release on Keith Schembri and Konrad Mizzi on money laundering - PR 115/17. This press release is dated 2 March 2017. “Why doesn't it still appear on the website?” Kurt Sansone
11:20 Cutajar: “Let me be honest. I deny ever receiving this information. It isn't sounding familiar to me.” Kurt Sansone
11:19 Azzopardi says Caruana Galizia had claimed in April that Keith Schembri was accepting bribes from passport sales. This was followed by The Times of Malta, which had said that the police commissioner and the AG were informed of suspicious bank transfers and money laundering suspicions. Kurt Sansone
11:18 Azzopardi asks whether Ian Abdilla had ever informed him that he was making progress on Karl Cini. “No,” Cutajar replies. Kurt Sansone
11:17 Cutajar says he was sent for by the ECU and was interrogated. Charges have not been issued so far. Cutajar cannot say why no charges have been filed yet. Kurt Sansone
11:17 Questioning moves on. Cutajar asks about the recommendation made by the magistrate who investigated the Egrant allegations for steps to be taken against Karl Cini for perjury. Kurt Sansone
11:16 Azzopardi asks how the PM got his information for the 22 November 2019 briefing. Cutajar says that there was a task force, involving the Attorney General, MSS, Europol, and the magistrate. “The PM had some information on the issue of the pardon for Melvin Theuma. Briefings were being given by the investigators in my presence and that of the AG.” Kurt Sansone
11:11 Cutajar: “I wasn't asked to. Of course not.” Kurt Sansone
11:07 Azzopardi: “The only press conference you held on this case took place on 19 October with you and Valletta. From then on, every public announcement on this case was made by the PM at the time. It was the PM who addressed the media after the arrest of Yorgen Fenech and said investigations would be closed in a few weeks. He also gave a briefing to journalists on what Melvin Theuma had said in his interrogations. Were you given an explanation as to why the PM gave a briefing, without the commissioner even being present?” Kurt Sansone
11:05 The investigation was based on forensic evidence, he insists. Kurt Sansone
11:05 Cutajar: “No, no.” Kurt Sansone
11:05 Azzopardi: “Did it occur to you that the sources of rumours were coming from the OPM?” Kurt Sansone
11:04 Cutajar: “I can never understand how he (Calleja) reached this conclusion. At the beginning of the investigation you start looking at all the sources, the intelligence. What I can say here is that we, our investigation, was 99% based on forensic evidence. That was the information that we were trusting.” Kurt Sansone
11:03 Azzopardi moves on to the topic of Semtex. “The day after the murder, there were several reports that the bomb had been identified as Semtex. Maurice Calleja had said that he was convinced that it was manufactured in Malta. There was a coordinated effort to mention Semtex and fuel smuggling immediately after the murder.” Kurt Sansone
11:02 Cutajar: “At the time, I was an officer in immigration, but even later as commissioner, nobody gave me any information on it.” Kurt Sansone
11:02 Azzopardi asks him whether he was informed as Commissioner that, in August 2015, Malta had refused an Indian extradition request for a national called Mohdi on money laundering. Daphne Caruana Galizia had established that this man's contacts in Malta were Keith Schembri and Adrian Hilman, and his passport agent was Nexia BT’s Brian Tonna. Azzopardi adds that this man was greeted at the airport by an OPM driver. Kurt Sansone
11:00 Cutajar: “Disciplinary measures were taken and an inquiry board [the public service commission] was appointed. Mifsud was immediately suspended, as that was possible. But Ramon, for every sitting was presenting medical certificates. He went down to half pay due to the length of proceedings, but at the time I left he was in this position. I couldn't do more.” Kurt Sansone
10:57 Azzopardi: “PC Ramon Mifsud, now retired, who was on the scene of the crime had posted Facebook comments which I find disgusting, were he expressed joy. You had said he was under investigation. Up till a year later Mifsud was still a police officer. Whilst you were police commissioner what happened Kurt Sansone
10:54 Cutajar: “Yes, also to the attention of the magistrate. No steps were taken against any particular people. Nobody was identified.” Kurt Sansone
10:53 Lawyer Jason Azzopardi has some questions. “On the day of the assassination, there were leaks of photos of the crime scene, some macabre, being circulated on social media. Was this fact brought to your attention?” Kurt Sansone
10:53 Mallia says that despite this the police still tried to speak to Yorgen Fenech but not Brian Tonna, Karl Cini and others. Kurt Sansone
10:51 Cutajar: “The perception of the public in the 1980s, was that when there was a serious crime such as a murder, the police would send for 10 people who wouldn't cooperate, but the public would see people being arrested. People believe that just because a person is not arrested nothing is being done. It is not the case.” Kurt Sansone
10:45 He attempts to defend his record by pointing to record drug seizures under his watch. Kurt Sansone
10:45 Cutajar: “Yes, I can confirm… The information which Malta Security Service has doesn't come to me, it is passed on to the particular investigator. This is why the commissioner has specialised branches. Because I tried to do some old school sleuthing, I am facing this tsunami. Missni għamiltha ta’ investigatur propja, they would ask for capital punishment for sure…” Kurt Sansone
10:43 Said Pullicino: “Were the people arrested known to the police?” Kurt Sansone
10:42 Cutajar says that car bombs happened under different police commissioners, but it was when he was police chief that the case was solved. Kurt Sansone
10:42 The board points out that the last car bomb in Malta was that which killed Caruana Galizia. Kurt Sansone
10:41 Cutajar: “My trust in Valletta comes from his results. Abdilla always gave plausible briefings.” Kurt Sansone
10:41 Comodini Cachia asks Cutajar whether now that he is aware of these things does he still trust Valletta and Abdilla. Kurt Sansone
10:37 Cutajar: “I don't remember.” Kurt Sansone
10:36 Comodini Cachia: ‘The bank had released a PR about the breach. Hadn't you seen this?” Kurt Sansone
10:36 Cutajar: “No.” Kurt Sansone
10:36 Comodini Cachia says that Pilatus Bank had asked the police to investigate leaks from the bank to Daphne Caruana Galizia and other media. “Was it brought to your attention?” Kurt Sansone
10:35 Mallia: “You had evidence, you had the servers!” Kurt Sansone
10:35 Cutajar continues: “Pardon me, but the theory that you send for a person and then try to collect the evidence doesn't make sense. You need evidence in hand so that if the person doesn't cooperate...” Kurt Sansone
10:32 Cutajar: “You don't understand, Mr Justice, I'm sorry.” Kurt Sansone
10:32 Judge Mallia: “When a blog gives you certain information which cannot be obtained except from the bank, you have circumstantial evidence. This all pointed to one outcome and you discarded it.” Kurt Sansone
10:32 Cutajar insists that in this case there was no shortage of action by the police. Kurt Sansone
10:31 Cutajar: “It was a form of intelligence but from my research dating back to 1999 there never was an investigation, which was carried out on the strength of a simple blog.” Kurt Sansone
10:30 The board asks him how on the basis of the intelligence from Daphne Caruana Galizia’s blog there was no evidence of an underlying offence. “Didn't you seek to speak with her and clarify with her? Not ask for her source.” Kurt Sansone
10:29 Cutajar says that Ian Abdilla also arrived and they filed a report with the duty magistrate, Aaron Bugeja. “How can I go to the AG when his advice was that there wasn't an underlying criminal offence, but just writing on a blog?” Kurt Sansone
10:27 Cutajar: “I was having a meal with police officers and there was information that there was movement at Pilatus in Ta’ Xbiex, in the sense that the bank owner had gone to the bank and so on… As soon as I received this information I called up Silvio Valletta to see how to proceed. Valletta told me that he had just hung up from a call with the AG. So, Valletta had spoken to Peter Grech. Grech's advice to Valletta was that what we had in hand was just a blog and no disclosure. There wasn't enough to justify a raid on the bank. I left the place and on the way to the office, Kurt Farrugia (government head of communications) called me and said that lawyers Pawlu Lia and Edward Gatt were coming to my office to file a criminal complaint by the PM.” Kurt Sansone
10:23 Cutajar thanks the board for the opportunity to speak about Egrant. Kurt Sansone
10:23 Cutajar says that he does not exclude that the police sought advice on 17 Black. Kurt Sansone
10:23 Judge Lofaro: “You told us that you received updates but that you don't know about any advice given by the AG on 17 Black. You are assuming.” Kurt Sansone
10:21 The AG's advice was only on the Panama Papers, not 17 Black, Cutajar says. “I have a squad of expert investigators; my role is principally to strengthen the tools... not to investigate myself.” Kurt Sansone
10:20 Mercieca leaves the courtroom. Kurt Sansone
10:19 Cutajar says that this is not evidence and you needed evidence in hand to question people because of disclosure. Kurt Sansone
10:18 “Our concern is the fact that you received the report from the FIAU and the documents in the public domain and the only person who you could have progress with, you didn't send for,” Mallia says. Kurt Sansone
10:17 Cutajar: “17 Black started immediately when we received the information from the FIAU.” Kurt Sansone
10:17 “Had action been taken on 17 Black, the motive behind the bomb, things could have been different,” says Said Pullicino. Kurt Sansone
10:16 Lofaro and the witness are having a back and forth about his trust in Valletta. Kurt Sansone
10:16 Lawyer Charles Mercieca enters the courtroom. Mercieca is part of Yorgen Fenech’s defence team. He is following proceedings with interest. Kurt Sansone
10:15 Judge Lofaro: “Maybe you could have checked his mobile.” Kurt Sansone
10:15 Cutajar: “No, the investigation was still gathering evidence. You need to give the person disclosure, not from the public domain!” Kurt Sansone
10:14 Comodini Cachia: “Did you invite Keith Schembri to HQ to explain his involvement in 17 Black?” Kurt Sansone
10:14 Cutajar says that Victoria Buttigieg from the Attorney General gave him the advice to keep Valletta on the investigation despite the conflict of interest. Kurt Sansone
10:13 Comodini Cachia fires a series of questions, among which: “Was it Valletta or FBI and Europol that investigated the cell tower data?” Kurt Sansone
10:12 Cutajar protests that Caruana Galizia's murder was the first in a series of car bombings that was solved in two months, with three individuals being arraigned. Kurt Sansone
10:11 Cutajar: “I didn't ask. I didn't feel I should ask.” Kurt Sansone
10:11 The board asks: “In your career is it normal for a police official to know if a person of interest is unwell? Why did the police go to him and not vice versa?” Kurt Sansone
10:11 Cutajar says he only found out about Valletta’s and Fenech’s friendship after the recordings came out. Kurt Sansone
10:10 It later emerged that Valletta and Fenech were friends and had even gone abroad to watch a football match together. Kurt Sansone
10:09 He is asked about the meeting with Yorgen Fenech in Portomaso. Hadn't he asked why Silvio Valletta was aware that Fenech was unwell. The background to this is previous testimony by Ian Abdilla. Abdilla was scheduled to question Fenech at his Portomaso office as part of the 17 Black investigation but received a call from Valletta telling him not to go because Fenech was sick. Kurt Sansone
10:07 Cutajar's voice rises a decibel or two. He is annoyed. Kurt Sansone
10:06 Cutajar: “I'm testifying on 17 Black... you need the evidence in your hand. You need the disclosure... as far as I’m aware the 17 Black investigations are still ongoing, aħseb u ara at the early stage you mentioned.” Kurt Sansone
10:06 Cutajar is asked whether Yorgen Fenech was spoken to. It was in November 2018 that Reuters outed Fenech as the owner of 17 Black. Kurt Sansone
10:05 Cutajar says that two inspectors, Ray Aquilina and Antonovic Muscat, were investigating and banks in Holland, Switzerland, Montenegro, China and the UAE were contacted. Kurt Sansone
10:00 Cutajar: “On 17 Black we received the information on 27 March 2018. It came by hand from Ian Abdilla and started being investigated immediately.” Kurt Sansone
09:59 Said Pullicino persists: “The same argument applies to the story of 17 Black. There were alarming elements.” Kurt Sansone
09:58 “It might prejudice the case,” replies Cutajar. “I got resources for the investigation. I added investigators,” he protests. Kurt Sansone
09:58 Cutajar explains that at that stage, the investigators... however, he is cut off by the judge. Said Pullicino explains to the former police chief that before pressing charges or interrogating a witness, one could question a person of interest. He asks why he did not do the same in the case of Karl Cini and Brian Tonna from Nexia BT. Kurt Sansone
09:56 “Evidence is being collected,” says the witness. Kurt Sansone
09:56 The board is hammering Cutajar. “Why didn't you go for the servers of Nexia BT?” asks Lofaro. Kurt Sansone
09:55 Cutajar insists that evidence was still being gathered. “The police were waiting for documentation from the banks,” Cutajar says, insisting this documentation is the evidence required. “Before questioning a person, you need the evidence in hand for the disclosure,” he argues. Kurt Sansone
09:54 Comodini Cachia asks whether there was anything else other than bank documentation in the investigation. She presses to the witness if the people involved were interrogated. Kurt Sansone
09:54 “Evidence from banks was still being gathered,” he protests. Kurt Sansone
09:53 Judge Abigail Lofaro: “What have you done in the case of Pilatus Bank?” Kurt Sansone
09:53 Cutajar: “During my time as commissioner of police, a file on the Panama Papers was not opened.” Kurt Sansone
09:52 Lawyer Therese Comodini Cachia, who is appearing for the Caruana Galizia family, points out that the file on Operation Green is very short. She asks whether it is the whole thing. Kurt Sansone
09:52 The board says this is an excuse to waste time. “This is a delaying tactic to do nothing. You spent a whole year after the publication of the Panama Papers doing nothing,” adds inquiry head, retired judge Michael Mallia. Kurt Sansone
09:51 Cutajar says he did not discuss the Panama Papers case concerning Konrad Mizzi, Keith Schembri and Egrant with then prime minister Joseph Muscat. "I can only speak for myself. I was not the lead investigator in the case. I didn't speak to the PM," he says. Kurt Sansone
09:50 Cutajar says the investigators had asked the AG’s advice and was also seeking more information from overseas. Kurt Sansone
09:49 Cutajar says that the police had to receive three reports before proceeding further. “I've explained last time… Information was being collected by the FIAU and we had a representative there, Abdilla,” he says. Kurt Sansone
09:48 Said Pullicino asks in which context was the update asked for. Kurt Sansone
09:48 Cutajar says that as soon as he assumed office he had asked for an update from then deputy police commissioner Silvio Valletta and Economic Crimes Unit head Ian Abdilla. Kurt Sansone
09:47 Chief justice emeritus Joseph Said Pullicino, a member of the inquiry board, asks him about Operation Green file. In previous testimony, it was revealed this was the code name of the police file that dealt with the Panama Papers involvement of Konrad Mizzi. Kurt Sansone
09:46 Former police commissioner Lawrence Cutajar takes the witness stand. Kurt Sansone
09:44 Good morning. Kurt Sansone