Yorgen Fenech lawyers charged over attempt to bribe Times journalist

Two of Yorgen Fenech’s lawyers have been formally charged over an alleged attempt to bribe Times of Malta journalist Ivan Martin

Charles Mercieca and Gianluca Caruana Curran leaving court on Monday: The lawyers face charges of attempting to bribe Times of Malta journalist Ivan Martin (James Bianchi/MaltaToday)
Charles Mercieca and Gianluca Caruana Curran leaving court on Monday: The lawyers face charges of attempting to bribe Times of Malta journalist Ivan Martin (James Bianchi/MaltaToday)

Two of Yorgen Fenech’s lawyers, Charles Mercieca, 26, of Qala and Gianluca Caruana Curran, 38, from Hamrun have been formally charged over an alleged attempt to bribe Times of Malta journalist Ivan Martin.

Martin says that he had rejected “between two and four €500 notes” physically handed to him by Caruana Curran towards the end of a meeting over a story.

The two lawyers pleaded not guilty to the charges in a sitting this morning.

The magistrate’s tiny courtroom was packed with lawyers, journalists and well-wishers as the two lawyers took their places in the dock.

Superintendent James Grech and Inspector Anthony Scerri led the prosecution.

The accused lawyers joked with their friends during the seemingly interminable wait for Magistrate Natasha Galea Sciberras to emerge from chambers.

Caruana Curran’s mother, lawyer Giannella de Marco, together with lawyer Stephen Tonna Lowell, were defence counsel to both men.

Tonna Lowell began by pointing out that Times of Malta journalist Jacob Borg was present in the courtroom and would later be summoned as a witness. Edwina Brincat (the TOM court reporter) was not present, but her husband was, he said.

He stressed that he had no objection to the presence of any journalists in the courtroom, but did not want to be precluded from having them testify when the time came.

The prosecution informed the court that it would not raise an objection to this effect.

The pair were arraigned by summons, not under arrest, and so there was no need for arguments to be heard on bail.

No disclosure, says defence

The defence counsel started off by requesting the disclosure of a statement made by Ivan Martin to the police. Tonna Lowell argued that time is of the essence, saying that he had asked specifically for the disclosure of this information but was twice refused. This disclosure would be used to control the cross-examination of Martin when that stage was reached, he said.

The court said it would hear Martin’s testimony today and would reserve cross-examination for after the defence had seen the video statement.

From the witness stand, prosecuting police inspector Anthony Scerri said that the Times of Malta had published a story about an offer of cash by Caruana Curran in the presence of Mercieca, after a meeting in Valletta.

The police had started a criminal investigation as the case could lead to “corruption in the private sector.” A right of reply sent by Caruana Curran had rebutted Martin’s article, but he had said that Martin had not informed the lawyers that he was working for the Times but as a freelance investigator.

Martin had said that he had first spoken to Mercieca in May 2020 over a separate article. In a subsequent meeting at the lawyer’s offices, the journalist had said he was offered between 2 and 4 €500 notes. He had spoken immediately to his news editor Diana Cacciottolo and later to editor-in-chief Herman Grech.

Cacciattolo had shown the police WhatsApp conversations between the editor and the lawyers, in which an explanation was demanded.

Caruana Curran had subsequently been interrogated by the police and had said that it might not have been more than one €500 note, but that he had no bad intentions when doing so, adding that he had felt Martin had deserved them for the work being done. No work had been requested, however, Caruana Curran had told the police.

Mercieca had also told the police that Caruana Curran had reached into a pouch to get money for Martin, but the journalist had refused. “He was less clear as to whether Martin had work done for him,” the witness testified. In one statement he had said that the journalist worked for them and another that he had “done a lot for them.”

The court asked what the meeting was for. The witness replied it was not clear whether it was for giving or receiving information.

Defence lawyer Stephen Tonna Lowell cross-examined the inspector. Martin had elaborated on the information in the article, said the inspector. “And you believed him,” retorted the lawyer. “It is one of the pieces of evidence to be presented in this case.”

Tonna Lowell disagreed with the assertion that Mercieca had contradicted himself when explaining the reason for giving the money. He argued that Mercieca had no forewarning about the offer and that he had communicated this to the police.

“Yes, but he said other things later,” replied the inspector. The AG had “conveniently eliminated Mercieca as a defence witness,” continued Tonna Lowell.

Ivan Martin testifies

The Times of Malta journalist at the centre of the explosive allegations, Ivan Martin, took the stand this morning after his lawyer Joe Giglio received reassurance from the prosecution that there were no plans to prosecute him.

“So far there is no reason to caution him,” declared the prosecution. “He is not being investigated.”

Martin said he had first contacted Mercieca after hearing of his leaving the Office of the Attorney General for the Yorgen Fenech defence team. “Over the next few weeks we exchanged some correspondence about court filings and so on,” he said.

Martin had later bumped into Caruana Curran at court and said they would meet up for a coffee. This was par for the course with being a journalist, he said.

During a subsequent meeting, Mercieca had met him at his office and given him some leads which he was interested in. “After the 30 October meeting I had set about trying to confirm some of his information to publish a story,” Martin testified.

He met Mercieca twice for coffee, always alone. On the Saturday, he was still shaky on some details, he said and had sent Mercieca an early draft of the story he was writing with some questions.

The following Monday Martin had to cover an OPM press conference. He had received a WhatsApp message from Mercieca asking to meet at Merceica’s office in Old Bakery Street that same day. During that meeting Caruana Curran, Mercieca and Martin had discussed the draft story, he explained.

“During that meeting they said that they wanted to have a series of stories written in a sort of campaign leading to the undermining of the credibility of Melvin Theuma,” Martin said.

The journalist told the court that he explained that he would not do this as the Times didn’t publish such campaigns and because they couldn’t have control over the stories he wrote. His intention, he said, was to nurture a source-journalist relationship.

Caruana Curran had expressed some concern at the Times’ coverage, Martin recalled, adding that the meeting had ended soon after as the lawyers had to go somewhere else.

“I saw Caruana Curran reach into his pocket and take something out. He said ‘these are for you’. I thought it was a post-it note as I had never seen €500 notes before. I took it and then noticed it was money and immediately handed them back. I said ‘you can’t pay me.’ I joked that the only people who I can accept money from is Times of Malta who don’t pay me enough. Caruana Curran had apologised saying that he had never dealt with journalists before and that ‘time is money’,” Martin testified.

He left the meeting and called up Cacciotolo informing her that he had been offered some money. Conversations on the matter had continued with Herman Grech. Subsequently, he went to the office and wrote a step-by-step account which he had then presented to the police.

The court asked who had reached out to whom first. The first exchange with Mercieca, about five months prior to the incident, had been initiated by Martin over his switch from the AG office to Yorgen Fenech defence, replied the reporter.

The defence reserved the right to cross-examine Martin.

Times editor: Offer of money 'completely unacceptable'

Times news editor Diana Cacciottolo also took the witness stand to confirm Martin’s version of events.

She had spoken to Herman Grech as the alleged attempt to procure positive coverage was “completely unacceptable.” She had called Caruana Curran who had been busy and he didn’t return her call.

She had then WhatsApped him, expressing concern about what happened in the meeting and wanted his explanation for the action. “I wanted him to know that Times Of Malta didn’t accept cash for coverage.”

Caruana Curran had later replied saying he was drafting a reply. At that point the Times decided to run the story, she said.

“At 9pm that night he had sent an email admitting to having offered money and then said that he wanted to tell his side of the story,” Cacciotolo said.

The Times published the article the day after the meeting and following that, had received another statement which had been sent to all media houses which contained a “slightly altered version of events” to their initial version, she said. Cacciottolo confirmed that she had also spoken to the police.

Defence lawyer Giannella de Marco cross-examined. Cacciottolo said she did not have Caruana Curran’s answer before the incident. Her first call was not answered. When he did answer it was at 4:57pm, she said.

“I introduced myself and said I wanted to speak with him about his meeting with Martin.” He said he was busy and had meetings. The next message at 5:19pm, she said once again who she was and that she wanted the reply by an 8pm deadline.

Asked why the deadline, she replied “we were going to run a story, the following day for the paper. When he missed the deadline we decided to hold on to the story until he replied.” De Marco suggested that Caruana Curran was being pressured for a reply, which he sent in at 9pm.

The reply was published the following morning, Cacciottolo said. “He had also made a series of allegations about our journalist that we needed to look into…We reported Gianluca’s reply in full at the same time the story came out in the portal.” The Times had also included its remarks under the lawyer’s reply.

“You gave Gianluca a tight deadline but not one to Ivan,” remarked Tonna Lowell.

Even if the Times had not received a reply from the lawyer, she said: “it was important enough to publish what the reporter had told us.”

Times Editor in Chief Herman Grech took the stand next.

Martin had met with the lawyers for Yorgen Fenech, he said. After the meeting in November, Grech had been contacted by Cacciottolo with the allegations. “I immediately recognised that it was a serious issue and called Ivan into my office.” He had asked Martin to compile a written statement. Martin had met the accused lawyers twice: on the Friday and the Monday.

At one point they had asked for positive coverage for their client, he said. “I had told Diana to get the versions of the lawyers, and she had contacted them to get this.”

Grech was spoken to by the police and had confirmed that it was normal to meet with sources and lawyers but that journalists cannot be paid separately without the approval of the editor or the HR manager at least.”

The case continues on 17 February.