Judge in PN Vitals civil damages case slams inquiry leak, defends media's duty to publish

Mr Justice Toni Abela says Vitals inquiry appears irrelevant to civil damages case filed by PN over €400m spent on fraudulent hospitals deal • On the inquiry judge likens the situation to the Leonard Cohen song, 'Everybody Knows'

The PN has instituted a civil case to force the State Advocate to seek legal action to recover the €400 million of taxpayer money paid to the private companies in the deal already annulled by the courts
The PN has instituted a civil case to force the State Advocate to seek legal action to recover the €400 million of taxpayer money paid to the private companies in the deal already annulled by the courts

The judge presiding over the case filed by the Opposition for the return of public funds spent on the fraudulent hospitals deal, has denounced the Vitals inquiry leak.

Mr Justice Toni Abela warned that whoever was “playing dirty” would be brought to book but remarked that the media had “a duty to publish” once it received a copy of the inquiry.

“The court has already said that it would not allow the media to lead it by the nose and condemns those who are passing this information to the newspapers, who, once it ends up in their hands, have the duty to publish,” he remarked.

Abela is presiding over the civil case instituted by Opposition leader Bernard Grech and his predecessor Adrian Delia in which they are seeking a court ruling to force the State Advocate to take legal steps to recover the €400 million spent on the ill-fated deal.

The contract that saw three public hospitals granted to Vitals Global Healthcare, later taken over by Steward Health Care, was declared null by a court last year on the grounds of fraud.

A magisterial inquirt into the Vitals deal was concluded last month and several people are now charged with criminal activity, including former prime minister Joseph Muscat, his ex-chief of staff Keith Schembri and former minister Konrad Mizzi.

The inquiry was not in the public domain until MaltaToday published the findings in their entirety yesterday.

In the previous sitting, the judge had rejected a request by the PN for permission to exhibit the entire magisterial inquiry.

Like a Leonard Cohen song: ‘Everybody knows’

When the case was called this morning, PN lawyer Edward DeBono exhibited a copy of a note, in which he asked the court once again to order the exhibition of an official copy of the Vitals hospitals inquiry in the acts of this case.

“Yesterday the MaltaToday published the magisterial inquiry. We feel the court must have a copy of this inquiry, which is now in the public domain,” DeBono said.

“This is like the Leonard Cohen song, ‘Everybody Knows’,” observed the judge, wryly.

Mr Justice Abela asked DeBono whether the PN had formally requested the Attorney General’s permission to exhibit the inquiry. “We filed a judicial protest and a letter, two or three weeks ago.” No reply had been received so far, added DeBono.

Lawyer James D’Agostino, representing the Office of the State Advocate, opposed the request and reminded the court that the same request had already been made in a previous sitting and a decree, rejecting it, had been issued. That decree had expressed concern at the legality of how documents reached the public domain, he said, “but also because they have no relevance to the present proceedings.”

“Even if all of Malta can read certain texts because a newspaper chose to publish it, it doesn’t mean that it is legally published,” D’Agostino argued. “There was no need to wave flags in this case about something which has nothing to do with the merits. It is completely useless for us to have a copy of the proces verbal in the acts.”

The position of the intervenors in the case, namely Cabinet and the government, was that they fully agreed with those submissions.

READ ALSO: Prime Minister, State Advocate clash over Vitals inquiry in PN civil damages case

‘Inquiry appears irrelevant to case’

DeBono insisted that the situation was now different. “There has been a variation in the position from the last sitting to today, because it is in the public domain and everyone knows the contents of the inquiry. We aren’t asking the AG for permission. It is urgent that the State Advocate must take action against the deceivers,” DeBono argued.

He continued: “It is even more urgent because the State Advocate, in his testimony here, gave us a certificate of the integrity of Chris Fearne and the Prime Minister in their management of the Vitals issue…”

DeBono’s voice was then drowned out by shouting from the other parties, Prime Minister Robert Abela among them, requiring the judge to shout at the Prime Minister at least five times to stop.

The commotion infuriated the judge, already angry at the fact that the inquiry had been leaked to the press.

He warned of consequences for those who were leaking information but insisted the media had a duty to publish once it got the inquiry in its possession.

For the purposes of the issue at hand, what the inquiry said “does not appear to have relevance to the outcome of this case,” said the judge.

Judge slams fists on bench

“It saddens the court to see the inquiry doing the rounds and everyone pretending that they don’t know what it contains, despite everyone knowing. It is very sad to see that there are, no more than half a dozen, people who are causing great damage to the nation by illegally fanning the flames and [the court] makes it clear that investigations should have already started to identify who is behind them… And if the country lacks the structures required to resolve this case, how can it expect to do greater things? I am not going to let anyone continue to give out information!” exclaimed the judge, slamming his fists on the table. 

Mr Justice Abela continued: “This court is not going to be complicit in this! If I let it influence this case, I would be complicit and I will not allow this to happen. Let whoever wants to play dirty, play dirty, but if he is caught, he will have to answer for it. Unless it is a formal and official document, I will not consider it. The courts aren’t here to slide things into public discourse.”

He appealed to the parties to be led by the law “and not by anyone else.”

The court ordered the defendants and intervenors in the case to file a note of observations by 20 June, adding that it would be handing down judgment on 11 July.

Lawyers Edward DeBono and Nicholas DeBono are representing Grech and Delia. Lawyers James D'Agostino and Julian Farrugia are representing the State Advocate. Lawyers Chris Cilia, Ian Borg and Maurizio Cordina are representing the government and the Cabinet.

READ ALSO: Vitals inquiry | Grand Theft Malta