No love lost between leaders during tense broadcast debate

Both leaders accused each other and their respective party of corruption, as the PN leader Simon Busuttil publishes parts of FIAU reports on Keith Schembri and Pilatus Bank

Prime Minister Joseph Muscat and Opposition leader Simon Busuttil spar in first televised debate during the electoral campaign (Photo: James Bianchi/MediaToday)
Prime Minister Joseph Muscat and Opposition leader Simon Busuttil spar in first televised debate during the electoral campaign (Photo: James Bianchi/MediaToday)
Opposition leader Simon Busuttil (Photo: James Bianchi/MediaToday)
Opposition leader Simon Busuttil (Photo: James Bianchi/MediaToday)

Accusations and insults were the order of the day as the Prime Minister and Opposition leader faced-off in a heated leaders’ debate just over a week before the general election.

The debate’s tone was set roughly an hour before it started when the Malta Independent published a report claiming OPM chief of staff Keith Schembri and minister Konrad Mizzi had been paid kick-backs by a company connected to the owners of the LNG tanker berthed in Marsaxlokk.

Busuttil started the debate by underscoring the gravity of the current political crisis, insisting that the last time Malta faced such an important electoral decision was back in 2003 when the country voted to join the European Union.

He stressed that the country faced a situation where its Prime Minister was under criminal investigation while his chief of staff was the subject of two such investigations. He wasted no time in referring to the Independent’s report and held up a copy of the report for viewers to see.

“This means they put a tanker in Marsaxlokk, with all the associated risks to the people living there, and now the FIAU is saying they are taking kick-backs from it,“ said Busuttil.  

Muscat insisted that the allegations being made by Busuttil were false and were being coordinated by the PN leader himself.  Asked by Azzopardi whether he would resign if the inquiry found not connection to Muscat, Busuttil said he would resign had he been caught with a company in Panama, adding that there was also a whistle-blower who had seen documents linking the Prime Minsiter’s wife.

“I too have a whistle-blower and they have told me that what the leader of the opposition is incorrect,” said Muscat.

He once again reiterated that he would resign if any link was found between him or his family members and the company Egrant.

Muscat said that what unites the “coalition of confusion” was their hatred of him, a hatred that had led them to put their weight behind lies, in order to topple him from power.

Busuttil insisted that the Muscat had made a mockery of the country and that by now, nobody was believing a word he said.

“We know you, today we know that you did not take action and that the third company belonged to someone so important that it had to be done over skype,” said Busutill. “You are trying to put the blame on others, for things you have done yourself.”

FIAU reports

Many of the allegations and revelations from the past month have centred around a number of reports by the Financial Intelligence Analysis Unit (FIAU), which it is claimed contain proof of money laundering by Schembri, through Pilatus Bank.

During the debate, Busuttil held up copies of three FIAU reports – one which he claimed showed that Pilatus Banks was a “washing machine” due to its involvement in money laundering activities, and another two which he said clearly showed Schembri was laundering money.

 The Opposition leader, reading from one of the reports, said that it had found that “sufficient information was available to conclude that reasonable suspicion of money laundering subsists”.

“Tell people why you left Keith Schembri and Konrad Mizzi there,” he pressed on.

Muscat countered by saying that the report is not about him, adding that Busuttil had taken the report to the magistrate to delay the inquiry.

It was at this point that Muscat accused Busuttil of having used his position as party deputy leader in the last months of the last legislature, to settle a court case between the government and a company he represented, and for which he had taken commissions.

Referring to a second FIAU report, Busuttil said that one could easily see the transfer of funds between Schembri and former Allied Group managing director Adrian Hillman.

Muscat again said Busuttil was mistaken and highlighted the fact that the majority of the transactions Busuttil was referring to took place before the last election, and were business transactions.

The Nationalist Party has published all three FIAU reports, as well as the list of Schembri’s transactions.

“We either have a case of a Prime Minister that is blatantly lying or one that is believing his own lies,” said Busuttil.

On Pilatus Bank, Busuttil said that Schembri had taken a “personal interest” in the bank while Muscat pointed out that the bank had been brought to Malta by former finance minister Tonio Fenech.

“You are lying for the simple reason that all you have built is built on a calumny,” said Muscat.

He accused Busuttil of not know what he was saying because the report must first go to the police, who are in turn the ones who decide whether to investigate.

“So, if there is an FIAU investigation it is a criminal investigation?” asked Muscat. “You deserve to have your warrant taken away from you. The magistrate is determining whether there is scope for an investigation.”

Muscat reminded Busuttil that following the CapitalOne inquiry - which investigated among other things, whether a police investigation into money laundering was stopped when PN deputy leader Beppe Fenech Adami’s name cropped up – a part of the report which was anot published, had been sealed and sent to the FIAU.

“I have read the report and Beppe Fenech Adami is being investigated over allegations of laundering of drug money,” he said.

Busuttil however insisted that the inquiry report that was published had found no wrongdoing by Fenech Adami.

Mario De Marco allegations

Given that Muscat had said he would resign if it turned out that he was linked to Egrant, Azzopardi asked why Mizzi and Schembri had not also been asked to resign.

Muscat insisted that both Mizzi and Schembri had declared their companies in their declaration of assets. On the other hand, said Muscat, Nationalist Party deputy leader Mario De Marco was the owner of Cypriot company which was not declared.

Busuttil did not initially respond to the allegation, however following a commercial break, he said that Mario De Marco had categorially denied the veracity of the Prime Minister’s statement.  

“Mario De Marco categorically denied that he owns a company in Cyprus. Between Joseph Muscat and Mario De Marco I believe Mario De Marco,” said Busuttil.

Muscat pressed Busuttil to say whether he would ask De Marco to resign, when evidence was published showing that De Marco was lying, however Busuttil was did not reply. 

Muscat accused Busuttil of being a hypocrite because he was the leader of a party with one deputy leader being investigated by the FIAU, a second deputy leader who had an undeclared offshore company and a candidate like George Pullicino, yet still chose to “pontificate”.

“Unlike your allegations these are facts,” said Muscat.

Busuttil insisted that in any other country, Muscat would have resigned but he had instead called a quick election so that he could retain power and protect himself.

In their closing statements both leaders repeated their respective mantras.

Busuttil said that on 3 June, the country would be asked to choose between “the most corrupt government in Malta’s history” and starting over a new leaf.

He said the country desperately needed a government that was willing to fight corruption, insisting that Muscat had been giving a bad example to the country ever since he opted to rent his own car to himself at the start of the legislature.

On the other hand, Muscat stressed that unlike Busuttil, he had been choosing Malta since he was born, and had never acted against the country.

He reiterated that he was the subject of hurtful lie, which he said he would overcome before uniting the country once again. He said that ahead of the election, people needed to ask themselves whether their families and themselves were better off today than they were four years ago, and which party was more likely to see their family progress further in life.