Updated 2 | New acting CEO appointed after MFSA chief Joseph Cuschieri, legal counsel self-suspend pending Vegas investigation

CEO Joseph Cuschieri and head of legal Edwina Licari suspend themselves over Las Vegas trip with Tumas magnate Yorgen Fenech • Licari resigns from FIAU board

Edwina Licari (left) with Joseph Cuschieri
Edwina Licari (left) with Joseph Cuschieri

Updated at 7:58 pm with CEO appointment

The chief executive officer of the Maltese financial regulator Joseph Cuschieri, and the MFSA general counsel Edwina Licari have suspended themselves from the MFSA, pending an internal investigation on a Las Vegas trip with the magnate Yorgen Fenech.

The suspension comes hot on the heels of news that Cuschieri and Licari had travelled to Las Vegas together with the Tumas magnate and casino owner Yorgen Fenech back in May 2018.

The financial regulator’s legal counsel Edwina Licari was still legal counsel at the Malta Gaming Authority at the time of the trip in May 2018.

Licari, who was also a board member of the Financial Intelligence Analysis Unit, has resigned her post on the anti-money laundering agency.

The Finance Ministry said in a statement that Licari submitted her resignation from the FIAU board on Friday morning. "Minister for Finance and Financial Services Edward Scicluna contacted Dr Edwina Licari yesterday morning to discuss her position as Member of the Board of the FIAU. This morning the minister received a letter of resignation from Dr Edwina Licari, which he has accepted with immediate effect. Minister Scicluna thanked Dr Licari for her services to the institution," the statement read.

MFSA chief executive Joseph Cuschieri had only just been appointed to the regular in May 2018 when he travelled with Fenech, Licari and Charlene Bianco Farrugia, a secretary from the Office of the Prime Minister, to Las Vegas.

He was formerly chief executive of the MGA itself.

The PN called on the Prime Minister to remove Cuschieri from the MFSA after Times of Malta reported that the MFSA CEO had travelled to Las Vegas with Caruana Galizia murder suspect Yorgen Fenech in May 2018. The trip was paid for by Fenech.

Cuschieri told the newspaper he had been invited by Fenech to advise on regulatory matters related to gaming, a sector he had just exited. Fenech is a casino owner. But while Cuschieri had only just stepped down from CEO of the Malta Gaming Authority, also accompanying them on the flight was the MGA’s legal counsel.

Cuschieri has insisted there was no conflict of interest or ethical breach given that he had already moved away from the MGA.

Fenech’s ties to 17 Black and his link to the murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia were not yet known at the time.

The PN said that Cuschieri’s all-expenses paid trip to Las Vegas, where he acted as consultant to Fenech, was another blow to Malta’s reputation. “The last thing the financial services sector in Malta needs is to have a shadow cast on the regulator. Cuschieri failed to publicly declare these facts, despite the developments of recent months, and it had to be the Times’s journalists who uncovered these shocking facts that continue to confirm how the institutions were hijacked by those who had an interest in weakening them,” the PN said.

Rule of law NGO Repubblika called on Cuschieri to resign his MFSA role or be removed.  The NGO insisted that the mere fact that Cuschieri accepted to travel to Las Vegas in a trip paid by Fenech and be hosted in luxury casinos while running the MFSA was “a serious breach of professional ethics”.

Government statment 

An official statement by the parliamentary secretariat said the two persons had “suspended themselves”.

“MFSA Chief Executive Officer Joseph Cuschieri, in keeping with the principles of good governance, has voluntarily suspended himself from his duties with immediate effect. This to allow the same Authority to carry out any verifications necessary in relation to events reported in the media in recent days. The MFSA’s General Counsel, Edwina Licari has also suspended herself from her duties with immediate effect to allow the same Authority to conduct any verifications deemed necessary,” the statement read.

The MFSA also confirmed the suspensions.

“The MFSA’s management and staff shall, of course, remain focused on the implementation of the Authority’s vision and strategy,” its statement read.

Christopher Buttigieg appointed as acting CEO

The MFSA issued a second public statement announcing the appointment of Dr Christopher Buttigieg as acting CEO of the authority, 

The Board of Governers will also be conducting an assessment of the facts reported in media relating to Joseph Cuschieri and Edwina Licari. The authority further clarified that both parties took the decision to suspend themselves voluntarily until the assessments are concluded.