Caruana Galizia public inquiry: Yorgen Fenech was often at Castille, former Keith Schembri assistant reveals

A former assistant to Keith Schembri at the Office of the Prime Minister has for the first time revealed that Yorgen Fenech was often at Castille

Yorgen Fenech was often at Castille, according to Keith Schembri's former personal assistant Charlene Bianco Farrugia
Yorgen Fenech was often at Castille, according to Keith Schembri's former personal assistant Charlene Bianco Farrugia

Yorgen Fenech was “often” at Castille, Keith Schembri’s former personal assistant has revealed.

Charlene Bianco Farrugia was testifying in the Daphne Caruana Galizia public inquiry when she made the significant revelation. So far, all officials from the Office of the Prime Minister who testified in the inquiry said they never saw Fenech at Castille.

Fenech who is charged with masterminding the Caruana Galizia murder was a good friend of former OPM chief of staff Keith Schembri.

Asked point blank by the inquiry board whether Fenech was ever at Castille, Bianco Farrugia replied: "Yes, I often saw him."

She continued: "I think there are public records as well saying that he was often seen in Castille. I don't know whether he signed a guestbook or anything like that. But, yes, I often saw him. I can't say how many times because I don't remember."

Her testimony continued behind closed doors.

This is the first time that a former OPM official has admitted that Fenech used to be seen at Castille.

The public inquiry into the murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia continued on Wednesday afternoon. Another OPM official, Ronnie Vella, also testified before the inquiry.

At the start of today's sitting, Caruana Galizia's son, Matthew, presented the board with a guest list for a party that Electrogas threw in 2018 to celebrate the conclusion of the power station contract. The guest list included then prime minister Joseph Muscat, his chief of staff Keith Schembri, Schembri's assistant Charlene Bianco Farrugia, Neville Gafa and Kenneth Azzopardi from Castille.

Matthew explained that the guest list came from an email that was part of a leaked cache of emails from the Electrogas servers passed on to his mother.

The party was to be held at Level 22 in Portomaso during the period between Caruana Galizia's murder and the arrests.

Inquiry background

Former judge Michael Mallia is chairing the inquiry board, while Chief Justice Emeritus Joseph Said Pullicino and Judge Abigail Lofaro are the board’s other two members. The inquiry's terms of reference stipulate that it must be concluded within nine months.

The public inquiry will have to determine whether any wrongful action or omission by or within any State entity could have facilitated the assassination of Caruana Galizia or failed to prevent it, particularly whether the State knew or should have known of risks to the journalist’s life “at the time” of her murder.

It must also consider whether the State not only knew of, but “caused” risks to Caruana Galizia’s life.

Although its terms of reference allow for restrictions on the publication of the inquiry's report, it specifies that the board must provide the family with the opportunity to read the full report, including the redacted parts, without being granted copies of the text underlying any redactions. The family are also prohibited from divulging the redacted content.

The inquiry board is bound to presenting the inquiry report, once it is completed, to the Prime Minister and Attorney General, to notify the public that the inquiry has been concluded and presented to the Prime Minister, and, most notably, to publish the report within eight working days from when it is delivered to the Prime Minister.

The Prime Minister has to table the report in Parliament within five days of receiving it.

15:41 The next sitting is on Friday at 9am. Kurt Sansone
15:41 Journalists are asked to leave as there will be no other testimonies today. Kurt Sansone
15:38 The testimony will continue behind closed doors. Kurt Sansone
15:37 "I think there are public records as well saying that he was often seen in Castille," she says. "I don't know whether he signed a guestbook or anything like that. But, yes, I often saw him. I can't say how many times because I don't remember." Kurt Sansone
15:36 "Yes, I often saw him," she says. Kurt Sansone
15:35 Said Pullicino asks whether Yorgen Fenech was ever at Castille. Her lawyer interjects and says that she will answer this question behind closed doors... She is pressed to answer. Yes or no? Kurt Sansone
15:34 She says that she had an office in the same floor as Schembri's office and Joseph Muscat's office and shared this office with four other individuals. Kenneth Azzopardi took her place as Schembri's assistant, she says. Kurt Sansone
15:33 Charlene says she started working at the Malta Information Technology Agency recently and before that, she used to work at the OPM. In 2013 she started working as the personal assistant of Keith Schembri, and then in April 2016, she started taking care of government projects across ministries, liaising with respective ministries to see that projects are completed. Kurt Sansone
15:31 According to recent reports, murder middleman Melvin Theuma met with Charlene Bianco Farrugia in Castille three weeks after Daphne's murder. The meeting was allegedly arranged by the alleged mastermind behind the murder, Yorgen Fenech. Kurt Sansone
15:28 This is due to an ongoing inquiry that she is testifying in, the lawyer says, but it is unclear what inquiry he is referring to. Kurt Sansone
15:26 Charlene Bianco Farrugia has just entered the courtroom and has been asked to take the stand. Her lawyer is asking that her testimony be heard behind closed doors. Kurt Sansone
15:25 Mallia says that people who testified previously might have to be brought back to testify again in light of new information that is being obtained by the board. Kurt Sansone
15:25 Ronnie Vella's deposition has been suspended. Kurt Sansone
15:24 The incident took place between 10:30am and 11am on 25 May 2017, during the general election campaign at the time. Ronnie confirms that he often reported things that might have been of interest to the Labour party to former chief of staff Keith Schembri. Kurt Sansone
15:20 Mallia and Lofaro nod. "Alright then. We're sorry. Let's carry on." Kurt Sansone
15:20 Comodini Cachia intervenes and says that the date on the still is wrong. Kurt Sansone
15:20 Ronnie shakes his head. "No, no, I swear. Under oath, this cannot be possible." Kurt Sansone
15:19 Michael Mallia suddenly notices something on the stills. "I have a date and time here. You said the press conference was in the morning but the date here reads 10pm." Kurt Sansone
15:19 Ronnie says he sometimes reports things that might be of interest to the party. "I often sent things to Keith Schembri," he says. Kurt Sansone
15:18 "Is it part of your work to take footage or report people who are of interest to the Labour Party?" the lawyer continues. Kurt Sansone
15:17 Comodini Cachia asks him whether he usually remembered journalists at press conferences. "When you look at the pictures we just showed you, you don't recognise those faces at the coffee shop? Do you know whether they are journalists?" Kurt Sansone
15:15 "It's a coincidence that we ended up in that bar," Ronnie says, adding that he was not profiling anyone. Kurt Sansone
15:15 Comodini Cachia asks him whether the coffee shop was on the way from the press conference in Buskett to the Labour Party headquarters. Kurt Sansone
15:14 Ronnie shakes his head and says he does not remember taking footage of other people. Kurt Sansone
15:12 The board of inquiry is pressing him on this issue. Abigail Lofaro is telling him that in the photograph, he has his mobile out, pointing it at other individuals, but he's not looking at the phone screen as if he is trying to seem inconspicuous. Kurt Sansone
15:12 The stills seem to have been obtained from CCTV footage. Ronnie breaks the silence after looking at the picture and says that he doesn't remember taking footage, contending that it's not normal behaviour for one to take footage of other individuals in public. Kurt Sansone
15:10 "Did you take footage or take a photograph of any individuals inside this coffee shop?" the board asks. Ronnie is closely analysing the photograph, wearing his spectacles to do so. Kurt Sansone
15:09 The board of inquiry show him a photograph of himself again and ask him what he was doing at the time. The picture shows him holding the mobile and pointing it at a group of people in the shop. Kurt Sansone
15:08 Ronnie also identifies the coffee shop in Rabat. Kurt Sansone
15:07 He says that he does not meet this individual anymore, at least not on a habitual basis. Kurt Sansone
15:07 Ronnie says that the meeting probably had something to do with a press conference that former prime minister Joseph Muscat had held in the area. Kurt Sansone
15:06 Ronnie has been shown a picture of the other person he was allegedly present with in Rabat and he identifies him. The inquiry board has ordered, however, that names not be mentioned to protect their identity. Kurt Sansone
15:02 He says that he is unaware of whether Keith Schembri and Yorgen Fenech were friends. "Nobody ever told me anything," he says. Kurt Sansone
15:01 He is asked whether he ever saw Neville Gafà in Castille and Ronnie says that he often saw him. Kurt Sansone
15:01 Ronnie says he only knows Yorgen Fenech from the latest news. Kurt Sansone
15:01 Ronnie is now asked whether he had ever seen Yorgen Fenech in Castille. "No," he says. "I have never seen him on the third floor. I never saw him there." Kurt Sansone
14:59 Ronnie Vella was present in Castille after a long cabinet meeting last November that lasted until the early hours of the morning and where, notoriously, journalists were unable to leave the conference room. At one point, Ronnie is seen blocking the doors in online videos. Kurt Sansone
14:59 The board of inquiry is showing the witness several stills of the photographs of himself in Rabat. Kurt Sansone
14:53 Even though he is shown a photograph of himself at the Rabat coffee shop that the board is referring to, Ronnie insists that he does not remember. Kurt Sansone
14:53 Said Pullicino pushes further, asks Ronnie whether he was with another person in Rabat and was following an individual and obtaining information. Kurt Sansone
14:53 "If I tell you that you were at a certain bar with another man..." Said Pullicino says. Ronnie insists that he doesn't remember. Kurt Sansone
14:51 "2017 is not yesterday. I can't remember what the event was," Ronnie says. Kurt Sansone
14:50 "Be careful," Judge Abigail Lofaro warns. "You are under oath. Be careful of getting caught not telling the truth." Kurt Sansone
14:50 Joseph Said Pullicino is asking Ronnie whether he was ever asked (around May 2017) to follow someone in a coffee shop in Rabat. He says, "no." Kurt Sansone
14:47 Ronnie says he was employed with the Planning Authority in 2015. In May 2017, he says that he might have been involved with the electoral campaign of the Labour Party. Kurt Sansone
14:46 In reply to a question by Michael Mallia, Ronnie says that he often followed Daphne's blogs. Ronnie says that he never really discussed Daphne's blogs with anyone. "It doesn't interest me," he says. Kurt Sansone
14:41 Vella says that he's unsure of whether he was a person of trust or not before his communications role. "I spent more time with Ray Barbara than Kurt Farrugia, because I had more to do with the setup of press conferences, the logistics," he says. Kurt Sansone
14:39 Ronnie says that he is a projects manager at Projects Malta and has been occupying this role since 12 January 2020 after he left his work with the OPM. "I used to work in the communications office at OPM," he says and that he has spent four months in this role. Kurt Sansone
14:37 The lawyer says that his client will collaborate fully unless he is asked to say things that might prejudice him in an ongoing investigation. Kurt Sansone
14:36 "I am informed that he was called twice but there were some things that needed to be cleared. He hasn't met with police yet," his lawyer says. Kurt Sansone
14:36 Vella’s lawyer has entered the courtroom and explains that Ronnie was called by the police numerous times on a particular incident. Kurt Sansone
14:35 Ronnie Vella answers questions about himself, where he was born and where he lives. Kurt Sansone
14:35 Matthew steps down and Ronnie Vella is called by the board to come in from the hallway. He enters and takes the stand. Kurt Sansone
14:34 "The deal was closed in between my mother's murder and the information of 17 Black being owned by Fenech coming out. Everything happened within that window, including the party itself," Matthew says. Kurt Sansone
14:33 "They wanted to commission the speech, which is why they included a line in the [company] budget to do so. The speech, however, was cancelled, and Fenech did not give a speech," Matthew says, adding that the party took place after his mother's assassination. Kurt Sansone
14:33 The party represented the closing of the Electrogas deal and took place at Level 22 at Portomaso. Yorgen Fenech was supposed to give a speech at the party. Kurt Sansone
14:32 The significance, he says, is that Joseph Muscat, Michelle Muscat, Charlene Bianco Farrugia, Neville Gafà, Kenneth Azzopardi, Keith Schembri's former private secretary, and Ketih Schembri himself are all listed as invitees. Kurt Sansone
14:32 Matthew presents an invite sent to a list of 238 people for an Electrogas party. "Yorgen Fenech was the organiser of the party," Matthew says. Fenech is a shareholder in the Electrogas consortium and was one of its directors. Kurt Sansone
14:27 "Just before my mother's murder, there were worries that Electrogas was going to default on the payment of its loan. After my mother's murder, the government decided to extend the guarantee so Electrogas was able to continue purchasing gas from Socar," Matthew says. Kurt Sansone
14:25 Matthew Caruana Galizia now takes the stand, presenting an email from the Electrogas servers. "The leak was initially received by my mother at the start of 2017, around February, and I assisted my mother in the receipt of further email and documents from the same leak, which is why I have access to them," he says. Kurt Sansone
14:24 Michelle Muscat's name was also listed. Her email address, Vella says, is [email protected] "That C doesn't indicate a middle name. It simply distinguishes her from other Michelle Muscats." Kurt Sansone
14:23 The final document presented is based on a blog post that Daphne had published in 2013: a list of secretarial contacts, 32 names in total, along with their emails. Joseph Muscat's email address is also listed. Kurt Sansone
14:22 She also submits a brief document on Ronnie Vella. “He was identified as a member of the communications team at OPM. There is plenty of photographic evidence showing that he was with the Prime Minister Joseph Muscat, but he does not interact with the media at all. He just stands at the side.” Kurt Sansone
14:21 "The document which I presented today is a document which was tabled in parliament among posts that had Daphne's name in their text," Vella says. Kurt Sansone
14:19 Corinne Vella presents a document: a printed post from Glenn Bedingfield's website that reads 'Murder will out', which Daphne had, her sister says, interpreted as a death threat. The post, she says, has since then been put down. Kurt Sansone
14:17 Comodini Cachia has informed the board that Corinne Vella and Matthew Caruana Galizia will be testifying first, in short. Kurt Sansone
14:17 The inquiry board members have entered the courtroom - Mr Justice Emeritus Michael Mallia, Chief Justice Emeritus Joseph Said Pullicino, and Judge Abigail Lofaro. Kurt Sansone
14:13 The late journalist's son, Matthew Caruana Galizia, has just entered the courtroom. He has greeted his grandfather and taken his seat. Kurt Sansone
14:11 The main witnesses, we hear, who will be testifying in today's sitting are Ronnie Vella, a member of staff at the OPM, and Charlene Bianco Farrugia, Keith Schembri's personal assistant. They are both sitting outside the courtroom. Kurt Sansone
14:10 Good afternoon. We are waiting for the sitting to start. The courtroom is packed as Daphne Caruana Galizia's family members are present - her sisters and parents - journalists, and lawyers Jason Azzopardi, Peter Caruana Galizia, Andrew Borg Cardona, and Therese Comodini Cachia. Kurt Sansone