Brian Tonna denies falsifying HSBC letters of reference in libel case

Nexia BT managing partner Brian Tonna has denied he used falsified letters of references to open bank accounts, arguing that the bank had admitted it was an administrative error

Brian Tonna leaving the courts this morning (Photo: Matthew Agius/MediaToday)
Brian Tonna leaving the courts this morning (Photo: Matthew Agius/MediaToday)

Nexia BT managing partner Brian Tonna has testified in a libel suit filed over reports about an HSBC investigation into allegations that his company used falsified letters of references to open bank accounts, but shed no light on why the person who first published the allegations – blogger and Malta Independent columnist Daphne Caruana Galizia – was not also sued for libel.

The libel was filed over two articles in the Malta Independent, one published in the Sunday newspaper on 8 May last year, titled “HSBC investigation expected into alleged fraudulent documents vouching for Keith Schembri and Malcolm Scerri,” and another online titled “Probe expected into alleged fraudulent documents,” last updated on 11 May 2016 to confirm that the documents were “authentic, not fraudulent.”

The bank had reportedly been asked to issue two information reports on Keith Schembri and Malcolm Scerri, respectively the owner and general manager of Casco Ltd.

Lawyer Peter Fenech, appearing for the Malta Independent editors Pierre Portelli, Stephen Calleja and David Lindsay, asked if the title implied that he was involved in corruption. “No,” Tonna replied. He confirmed that the online article had been updated after he had issued a denial.

The allegations had already been published “on a blog” some days before, the witness said.

“When it appeared on that blog did you issue a denial?” Fenech asked. “No,” he replied. “Did you file for libel?” the lawyer asked in a follow-up question. “We filed no libel,” Tonna confirmed.

Fenech asked about why the documents had apparently been issued from a closed branch.

“This was the reason behind the whole speculation, which later the blog and newspaper decided amounted to fraud. This is why we say we were harmed. We didn't issue it from the Attard branch, the bank did. The bank admitted this in a press statement, that it was an administrative error and in another statement said that there was no fraud.”

Tonna had not asked why the documents had been issued under the wrong branch, he said, and had no idea as to whether any investigation or internal probe was carried out by the bank.

HSBC had not corresponded with Tonna about the allegations and neither had he with them. “Karl speaks for himself, I didn't communicate.”

Karl Cini, a partner at Nexia BT, did not appear in court today and is understood to have previously filed an application informing the court that he would be unable to attend this morning's sitting.