Bonnici testifies in Caruana Galizia inquiry, distances himself from Henley libel threat against journalist

The public inquiry into Daphne Caruana Galizia's murder continues with Education Minister Owen Bonnici testifying about a leaked email exchange in which Henley and Partners sought the prime minister's blessing to sue the journalist and PN MP Jason Azzopardi

Caruana Galizia was murdered in a car bomb just outside her Bidnija home on 16 October 2017
Caruana Galizia was murdered in a car bomb just outside her Bidnija home on 16 October 2017

Owen Bonnici has distanced himself from the actions of Henley and Partners chief Christian Kalin who threatened libel action against Daphne Caruana Galizia in an exchange with government officials.

The email exchange between Kalin, then prime minister Joseph Muscat, his chief of staff Keith Schembri and Bonnici had been exposed by Caruana Galizia. Kalin, whose firm Henley & Partners is the concessionaire in Malta’s passport-for-cash scheme, was seeking the go-ahead to sue the journalist and Nationalist MP Jason Azzopardi.

Bonnici was asked about the case when testifying in this morning’s session of the public inquiry into the Caruana Galizia murder.

Bonnici said that Kalin had asked to visit him and he had accepted. “During this meeting Kalin had said at one point ‘I want to share this sentiment with you that you have a journalist in Malta who is repeatedly writing articles attacking our credibility and reputation. We are considering to proceed against this journalist legally.’  My reply was that in Malta there are legal avenues for redress, but I also made it clear that in Malta we tend to send an ittra bonarja (judicial protest) first to try and resolve issues amicably. That was it.”

The Education Minister said he had not replied to Kalin’s email. When asked whether he was aware that Joseph Muscat had accepted the Kalin proposal, Bonnici replied that if he was copied in the email he was aware of it.

“But if Joseph Muscat answered, then he must testify about it,” he added.

Asked whether as minister he felt the need to reply to the email suggesting legal action against media houses, Bonnici replied: “If he wants to use that route, who am I to tell him not to. What I did was encourage him to use dialogue. In this meeting, Kalin had mentioned that he had an international reputation to protect.”

Bonnici said that he was introduced to Kalin by Keith Schembri.

In the previous sitting, Deputy Prime Minister Chris Fearne described his relationship with former chief of staff in the prime minister’s office, Keith Schembri, as “frosty.”

READ MORE: Caruana Galizia public inquiry: Chris Fearne describes 'frosty' relationship with Keith Schembri

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.

12:12 That's it for today. Thank you for following. Kurt Sansone
12:09 The board will now take a five-minute break before continuing behind closed doors. The next sitting will be held on 30 September. Kurt Sansone
12:08 Bonnici adds that lawyer Arthur Azzopardi had sent a message to the OPM asking to meet him. Azzopardi was at the time representing Vince Muscat il-Koħħu. Bonnici says he had met and was told that Koħħu wanted a pardon. “I was against giving a pardon to Mr A to tell about Mr B, and then give another pardon to Mr B to reach Mr C, otherwise the proceedings would come to nothing,” Bonnici says. Kurt Sansone
12:07 Bonnici: “The decision was taken by me but I was telling my colleagues what was happening. There was no Cabinet discussion. I don't know why I was quoted this way.” Kurt Sansone
12:01 Comodini Cachia asks him about the court case regarding the flowers and candles on the Daphne Caruana Galizia makeshift monument in Valletta. The court had heard that there was a direct instruction from the minister to clear the monument. Bonnici had told the press that the decision was a collegial one, but who had been the ministers who took this decision, she asks. Kurt Sansone
11:56 Bonnici: “I don't because I don't do direct orders. There is nothing wrong with them. I know Dr Comodini Cachia had direct orders from PBS for example.” Kurt Sansone
11:55 Comodini Cachia asks whether he knew that Tonna was given €2.4 million in direct orders. Kurt Sansone
11:55 Asked how he could Tonna on board given the bad advice he gave Mizzi and Schembri to open Panama companies, Bonnici says that he had subsequently kept him on as a part-time consultant and later stopped using his services entirely. Kurt Sansone
11:53 Bonnici says that he found out that he had two accountants who were in his classroom and so he would use their services. “When I was made minister, I could appoint four consultants. I had given a contract to Brian Tonna. I needed a lot of assistance with EU funds to open Muża and MICAS.” Kurt Sansone
11:51 Bonnici says that Yorgen Fenech had once introduced himself to Bonnici at the airport. “That was the first time I heard of Yorgen Fenech. I was elected to parliament in 2008 and noticed I had some support from Marsaskala so I started to focus on it. On my home visits I started to hear of Brian Tonna,” he tells the inquiry. Kurt Sansone
11:41 On the presidential pardon granted to murder middleman Melvin Theuma, Bonnici says that Muscat had shouldered sole responsibility for it. “He had insisted that he wanted to shoulder responsibility for the presidential pardon (kien insista li ried jerfagħha hu),” Bonnici says. However, he tells the board that he wants to testify about security briefings behind closed doors. Kurt Sansone
11:39 Bonnici says he had been asked to give his opinion on the pardon request made by Vince Muscat, known as il-Koħħu. Keith Schembri was present but did not participate, he adds. “The prime minister and I had a relationship of great friendship,” Bonnici says. Kurt Sansone
11:37 Bonnici: “The prime minister had immediately called a meeting to discuss the murder. Simon Busuttil had also attended. What I remember is that the PM had asked me to draft the legal document related to the €1 million reward. He had also told us that the FBI was involved. Keith Schembri was present for the discussion.” Kurt Sansone
11:34 Asked about the Caruana Galizia assassination, he says that he had publicly stated that it was the worst thing that could have happened. “Everyone was in deep shock (ras maqtugħa).” Kurt Sansone
11:33 Bonnici: “Naturally, nobody was pleased. I had announced the investigation in parliament. I wasn't asked, I stood up and announced it.” Kurt Sansone
11:31 Bonnici is asked what was the Cabinet's reaction to the news that 17 Black belonged to Fenech. Kurt Sansone
11:30 Questioning turns to 17 Black, the Dubai company that was revealed to be Fenech’s in November 2018. Kurt Sansone
11:29 Bonnici says he never saw Yorgen Fenech at Castille. “I didn't even know he existed.” Kurt Sansone
11:29 QUICK REMINDER: During last Wednesday’s public inquiry session, Deputy Prime Minister Chris Fearne said that when Muscat spoke to him about Mizzi and the Panama company, the prime minister had made it clear that Schembri was a person of trust and the decision on what to do with him rests solely with him. Fearne told the inquiry that Schembri’s position was not on the agenda. Kurt Sansone
11:23 Bonnici says that as a result of all that happened Joseph Muscat had eventually resigned. Kurt Sansone
11:22 “And in the case of Keith Schembri?” asks the board. Kurt Sansone
11:22 Bonnici goes on to say that Muscat had spoken to every member of Cabinet when the Panama Papers came out to determine what action would be taken. “Eventually, Mizzi was removed from party deputy leader and ended up without a portfolio.” Kurt Sansone
11:19 QUICK REMINDER: Brian Tonna is a managing partner at Nexia BT, the financial services firm that helped set up the Panama companies and New Zealand trusts for Schembri and Mizzi. It was bank account opening forms retrieved from emails that Nexia was exchanging with Panamanian firm Mossack Fonseca that revealed how Yorgen Fenech’s 17 Black was a target client of the Panama companies Schembri and Mizzi had opened. Kurt Sansone
11:16 On Nexia BT, he says he never saw its alleged office in Castille and that he had only seen Brian Tonna once there. But that Tonna had given services to Konrad Mizzi and Keith Schembri is clear, he adds. Kurt Sansone
11:14 Bonnici says he knew Keith Schembri was a businessman. “Many other local businessmen from both sides have similar setups… It is a different debate whether businesspeople should occupy certain positions,” he adds. Kurt Sansone
11:12 Questioning moves on to the Pamama Papers. Bonnici says that opening a trust/company in a foreign jurisdiction does not send positive messages. “That a minister opens a company in Panama is very naive and shouldn't be done by a politician. I had asked Konard Mizzi about the matter… If he wanted to regulate his family affairs there were other ways to do so.” Kurt Sansone
11:10 Bonnici says he had a good relationship with AG Peter Grech. “Sometimes Grech would give advice verbally but if the cases were serious, there would be written advice,” Bonnici says. Kurt Sansone
11:09 He says that it did, but subsequently after taking the necessary advice, it was decided to extinguish the criminal actions. “There was also correspondence with Prof. Kevin Aquilina in the newspapers which was taken into account.” Kurt Sansone
11:09 Comodini Cachia asks about the media reform Bill’s first draft which allowed ongoing criminal libel cases to continue. Kurt Sansone
11:08 Bonnici insists that he remembered seeing the post. “I saw it with my own eyes. And when I saw it, I thought it was not correct to speak this way.” Kurt Sansone
11:07 Comodini Cachia points out that Daphne Caruana Galzia had written on The Malta Independent that she had never written that Bonnici and Janice Bartolo should be hung upside down like Mussolini and his mistress. Kurt Sansone
11:05 Bonnici refers to a Caruana Galizia post saying that he should be hung like Mussolini that was later deleted. Kurt Sansone
11:03 He is confronted by an Illum article penned by Albert Gauci Cunningham, in which Bonnici is quoted saying Daphne Caruana Galizia is a hate blogger. Comodini Cachia says that this shows this was not just a matter of tweets. Bonnici says this is correct. Kurt Sansone
10:58 Bonnici says his criticism was proportionate and permissible in a democratic society. Asked about Glenn Bedingfield’s blog, Bonnici says it is not a style that he liked. “But there is no comparison to what Caruana Galizia would say,” he adds. Kurt Sansone
10:53 Asked if he had been told off about the hate blogger labelling, he says “I denounce any form of hate speech... freedom of expression is part of democracy”. “I feel that if there is a blog which is perpetuating continuously a sentiment of personal odium... I don't think my two or three tweets created an environment of hate speech.” Kurt Sansone
10:49 Bonnici says that he could not understand why Daphne Caruana Galizia would mix personal issues with otherwise good journalistic work. “We need people to do this kind of investigative work, but this style is not my cup of tea.” Kurt Sansone
10:46 The answer is simple, he says, he uses right of reply. “But there was a sentiment in the country that these were stories about purely personal issues. If we are honest, we had all said that it was too much. Even the archbishop had spoken out about it,” Bonnici says. Kurt Sansone
10:42 Comodini Cachia confronts him about tweets disparaging Daphne Caruana Galizia as a hate blogger. Kurt Sansone
10:40 Bonnici recalls that at one point he had to go with Kalin as part of a delegation to the EU, but this was in the public domain. “I used to work more with Jonathan Cardona from Identity Malta than Kalin,” Bonnici says. Cardona is responsible for the IIP programme. Kurt Sansone
10:39 Bonnici is asked whether he is aware that Joseph Muscat had accepted the Kalin proposal. The minister says that if he was copied in the email he was aware of it, but if Joseph Muscat answered, then he must testify about it. Kurt Sansone
10:37 Bonnici: “If he wants to use that route, who am I to tell him not to. What I did was encourage him to use dialogue. In this meeting, Kalin had mentioned that he had an international reputation to protect. On the SLAPP issue, I did everything in my power to stop the SLAPP action. Our press laws were repealed and rewritten from scratch. The question arises whether an EU jurisdiction can prevent SLAPP. Experts told me that there was an impediment with Brussels regulations. The solution needed is a European one, not local.” Kurt Sansone
10:34 Comodini Cachia asks Bonnici whether he felt the need to reply to the email suggesting legal action against media houses as a minister. Kurt Sansone
10:34 Bonnici: “Henley & Partners held one roadshow in London which was very interesting about legal points on the IIP programme. I was a guest speaker. It was like a seminar. It was fun from a legal perspective. Chris Kalin was there. The IIP was a project like many others which the government wanted to implement... Muscat involved himself in it more than other projects.” Kurt Sansone
10:32 Bonnici is asked about the Henley & Partners roadshows, which he had attended and were often addressed by Joseph Muscat. Kurt Sansone
10:29 Bonnici: “I said I don't have an email account @josephmuscat.com. This shows that not everything that is said is true... even on the smallest details. It is not a good or bad thing [to have an email account]. I would be criticised about this alleged account in the past and I never had the intention to file rights of replies but I take the opportunity now to set the record straight.” Kurt Sansone
10:19 Comodini Cachia points out that Joseph Muscat had an email account @josephmuscat.com. “Do you have a position on this?” Kurt Sansone
10:18 Bonnici: “The person would coordinate and chase people on pending jobs.” Kurt Sansone
10:17 Comodini Cachia: “Was it from Keith Schembri's office?” Kurt Sansone
10:17 She asks about the OPM personnel who helped with the IIP scheme. “There was a certain person who worked there for a while but then left. I cannot recall the name,” Bonnici says. Kurt Sansone
10:12 Lawyer Therese Comodini Cachia asks questions about this part of Bonnici’s testimony. Kurt Sansone
10:11 Bonnici says he was blamelessly involved in the issue by a third party. He says that his only libel suit was against NET News and this was amicably resolved. Kurt Sansone
10:10 Bonnici: “I need to keep a certain distance from foreign investors as a government minister.” Kurt Sansone
10:09 Bonnici says he chose not to answer because he didn't want to get involved, when confronted with the fact that the email asked for his go ahead. Kurt Sansone
10:08 He insists that he had only suggested the bonarja method. He had not replied to Kalin’s email suggesting overseas defamation suits. Kurt Sansone
10:08 Bonnici: “If I needed to send a legal letter, I could have asked the AG to do so. I had no need to engage foreign legal firms. I never proceeded with a libel against any journalist, ever.” Kurt Sansone
10:05 The Caruana Galizia family are remarking amongst themselves about this point. Kurt Sansone
10:04 Bonnici explains that he has two email accounts, his gov.mt account and another for his constituents. “I definitely did not plot with anyone to file international legal cases against anyone. In fact, I did not reply to his [Kalin’s] email,” he adds. Kurt Sansone
10:03 Responding to another question, Bonnici denies ever having an email account [email protected] Former prime minister Joseph Muscat used a private domain to communicate via email. Kurt Sansone
10:02 Bonnici: “A few days before, Kalin had asked to pay me a courtesy visit and I had accepted. During this meeting Kalin had said at one point ‘I want to share this sentiment with you that you have a journalist in Malta who is repeatedly writing articles attacking our credibility and reputation. We are considering to proceed against this journalist legally.’ My reply was that in Malta there are legal avenues for redress, but I also made it clear that in Malta we tend to send an ittra bonarja first to try and resolve issues amicably. That was it.” Kurt Sansone
10:00 Mallia asks him about leaked emails that were exchanged by Kalin, Schembri, the prime minister and Bonnici before the 2017 election. The emails spoke of legal threats to Nationalist MP Jason Azzopardi and Daphne Caruana Galizia. The emails susggested that they had already spoken and agreed to threaten and if necessary take action in the form of defamation cases. Kurt Sansone
09:59 “At some point, I was introduced to Mr Kalin by Mr Schembri,” he repeats. “I had a particular relationship with Mr Kalin. His character is not something I am used to... he is very reserved, very cold... it is difficult to build a friendship with him, and everything remains in the boundaries of professional conduct.” Kurt Sansone
09:58 Bonnici says he was not under this impression, but referred to his testimony to the Public Accounts Committee, which he said contained the details. He says that at the time in 2013, he was parliamentary secretary in Manuel Mallia's ministry. The OPM would give its support too, he adds. Kurt Sansone
09:56 Chief justice emeritus Joseph Said Pullicino asks if it was predetermined who would get the IIP concessionaire contract. Kurt Sansone
09:55 Bonnici tells the board that the legal notice making the scheme possible are not complicated. “There were two packets of amendments. To my knowledge, there was no direct input from Henley and Partners but I was not directly involved in its drafting,” Bonnici says. Kurt Sansone
09:54 Bonnici is asked whether this law was based on foreign laws or whether it was written from the ground up. Kurt Sansone
09:53 The project he is referring to is the Individual Investor Programme (IIP), which saw the sale of Maltese citizenship to wealthy foreigners. Bonnici says the law was drafted by the office of the AG. “I definitely didn't draft it myself,” he says. Kurt Sansone
09:52 Bonnici says he was introduced to Kalin in 2013 by Keith Schembri, then chief of staff in the Office of the Prime Minister. “I was given a brief, whereby together with the Attorney General Peter Grech, I was to draw up laws to make this project happen... this I did and the law was passed. The rest is history.” Kurt Sansone
09:50 Retired judge Michael Mallia asks about the protection of journalists. He asks about the witness’s relationship with Christian Kalin of Henley and Partners, a firm that deals in the sale of citizenship. Kurt Sansone
09:48 Education Minister Owen Bonnici is summoned to the stand. He takes the oath. Kurt Sansone
09:47 The board makes a statement: “The board informs that its attention was drawn to a Facebook post by Onor. Glenn Bedingfield, a witness in this inquiry on 16 September 2020 and to some comments made in reaction to it. It orders that a copy of this post and the comments underneath it be placed in the acts of the inquiry as proof on the merits and be immediately inserted after the testimony of Chris Fearne. The board reserves the right to give further pronouncements on this incident.” Kurt Sansone
09:46 Good morning. Kurt Sansone

 

 

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