Hillman protests ‘irrelevant, inadmissable’ witnesses in Progress Press case

Adrian Hillman’s defence lawyer has asked the prosecution to submit a list of all local printing presses that use HP equipment after it summoned two local print operators who had no connection to the case to testify

Former Allied Newspapers managing director, Adrian Hillman
Former Allied Newspapers managing director, Adrian Hillman

Adrian Hillman’s defence lawyer has asked the prosecution to submit a list of all local printing presses that use HP equipment after it summoned two local print operators who had no connection to the case to testify.

Hillman, a former managing director at Allied Newspapers and former Chairman of Progress Press, is the subject of ongoing criminal proceedings in which he is charged with money laundering, conspiracy to commit a crime, defrauding Progress Press, making fraudulent gain, making a false declaration to a public authority and accepting bribes.

Progress Press had applied for, and later received, some €1.5 million in aid from Malta Enterprise to help partially cover some €5.5 million worth of investment in a new printing set-up.

Lawyer Stefano Filletti questioned the relevance of the witnesses who testified this afternoon as the case continued before magistrate Donatella Frendo Dimech.

First to testify today were three FCID officers who had participated in Hillman’s extradition from the UK after he was detained there following a request by the Maltese authorities. They had been summoned to confirm the arrest procedure, stated prosecuting lawyer Antoine Agius Bonnici, something which Filletti argued should have been done at the arraignment stage.

After that, the prosecution summoned Eric Debono, the director of a printing business in Xewkija, to the stand.

His business uses two HP printers, one bought two years ago, and another eight years ago, from Kasco, the court was told.

Before the witness was called in, Filletti asked what the relevance of this man’s testimony was. Agius Bonnici replied that one of the charges dealt with the grant given to Progress Press by Malta Enterprise, which alleges that prices were inflated. “We are here comparing the same type of machine and types of papers and consumables for comparison,” replied the AG lawyer, arguing that the witness was being factual.

Filletti submitted that it was “going to create a big mess if an unconnected third party could testify about a similar model…. It’s a very thin edge.” He said he would object.

The magistrate, however, said she could not disallow a witness from testifying, only certain types of questions. She ordered the witness be called in.

Agius Bonnici asked the witness to confirm the model of the printer he used and the billing procedure. The printer was an HP7800 bought in March, he said. With regards to billing, they worked with “clicks,” Debono explained.  “Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Black, each one are a click. Every full-colour page takes four clicks if double-sided, 8. The machine has an in-built counter which sends the count to HP, who then bill you.”

“We would receive an invoice at the end of the month from Kasco, who would tell us how many clicks we used,” he said.

Filletti objected to the testimony, saying that he “could not understand the relevance of having a random Gozitan printer’s office testify about their operation in a case of national importance. There were obviously economies of scale at play,” he added.

Cross-examining the witness, Filletti asked whether Debono had been spoken to at all about the case. He hadn’t, aside from his summons, he said, adding that he had been spoken to by the police in the case about Keith Schembri, however. Asked how many times, he replied, “once, they had called me to send some information by email, and that’s it. I sent the same information.”

He explained that the police had called and asked him questions about clicks and had also sent an email with questions.

Filletti asked whether the witness had a copy of the contracts relating to the purchase of equipment from Kasco. “What I have is the quotation for the machines. It contains the features, the price, price of clicks and monthly maintenance costs.”

The lawyer asked about how he bought ink, pointing out that this information was absent from the invoice because the invoice also covered the innate costs of the clicks.

The agreement with Kasco was for payment on a per-click basis, made monthly, together with a fixed cost maintenance agreement, also payable on a monthly basis.

The witness confirmed that the price also depended on the type of paper used but confirmed that cost per click and maintenance were fixed.

“We don’t have a large volume of work, so a fixed price was negotiated,” explained the witness, adding that in other cases, prices were structured depending on volume.

Filletti dictated a note, objecting to the testimony that the court had just heard in that Debono represented a private printing company which he himself admitted had a very different operation, clientele and volume of work to that of Allied Newspapers, as well as having confirmed that he had not applied for any State benefits in the purchasing and operating of this machine.

“It, therefore, follows that his testimony is not only irrelevant to the charges of money laundering but also inadmissible. Even if not inadmissible, comparisons cannot be made as there is no similarity between the modest operation of Mr Debono and that of Allied Newspapers.”

But the prosecution insisted that Debono’s testimony was relevant, in order to shed light on how the HP machine worked, as it was the same model purchased by Progress Press from the Kasco Group. “His testimony was not about the amount of work he has, but simply technical testimony about how the machine works, in terms of clicks and consumables and how costs are calculated by HP.”

The prosecution announced that it had also summoned another local operator of the HP machinery to testify today. Filletti informed the court at that point that he would be asking the prosecution to exhibit a list of all the HP operators in the country.

Ronald Mifsud, managing director of another printing company, took the stand next. His company had purchased HP machines directly from HP in 1987 and 2002, he said. The defence objected once again, arguing that the link to this case was all the more tenuous as the machines were bought from a different supplier to that used by Progress Press.

Mifsud told the court that his company also used the clicks billing method, sending monthly statements to HP, who would, in turn, bill them via Kasco. “We were the local distributors of HP at the beginning, and then it was taken over by Kasco, so we had to do everything through Kasco after that.” Kasco took over Malta’s HP agency in 2003.

Printing paper was bought from a third party supplier, said the witness.

As the witness finished testifying, Filletti dictated a note, asking prosecuting inspector Joseph Xerri to present a list of persons who acquired the same model of printer to that testified about today in the next sitting.

The case was adjourned to February.