Schembri and Shaukat Ali: ‘consultancy’ kickbacks flowed from Vitals-Steward PPP

Investigators say former PM’s chief of staff used hospitals PPP for consultancy fees paid to Shaukat Ali, and personal costs for online reputation management

Keith Schembri, the chief ally of former prime minister Joseph Muscat, was one of the architects of the Vitals privatisation concession that was crafted intimately with Shaukat Ali, the Pakistani businessman who sourced investors for the multi-million project.

But investigators in the Vitals magisterial inquiry believe Schembri was central to all decision on the share purchase agreement for Steward and Vitals (VGH), even having a say on which VGH creditors should be paid, an involvement that amount to that of a “concealed owner” of the PPP rather than a government official.

Schembri is believed to have been well aware of the misappropriation of concession funds by Ram Tumuluri, the original VGH ‘investor’ brought in to run the concession by Shaukat Ali

Investigators say Shaukt Ali’s family was rewarded with huge consultancy fees when Steward was to take over Vitals as concessionaires of the hospital – as much as €480,000.

Former Office of the Prime Minister Chief of Staff Keith Schembri (Photo: James Bianchi/MaltaToday)
Former Office of the Prime Minister Chief of Staff Keith Schembri (Photo: James Bianchi/MaltaToday)

The “fees” were not reflected in the company’s accounts because they were paid from Steward’s parent company in the USA to the Swiss agent Accutor, the same payroll company that engaged Joseph Muscat for consultancies in 2020.

St Luke's Hospital in an abandoned state (Photo: James Bianchi/MaltaToday)
St Luke's Hospital in an abandoned state (Photo: James Bianchi/MaltaToday)

Investigators described Accutor as a “quasi bank” for the concessionaire companies, and said Schembri was in almost daily contact with Accutor director Wasay Bhatti, both of them being part of six WhatsApp groups.

The payments to Shaukat Ali were made two weeks before Steward Healthcare International – the international arm that took over the concession – signed a memorandum of understanding with the government to take over the hospitals concession.

In August 2019, the first of eight payments of €125,000 – some €1 million – started being advanced by Accutor for a “political support fund” as it was referenced by Armin Ernst, the former VGH chief executive who engineered Steward’s takeover of the concession, to another company called Sping Healthcare.

Investigators believe the use of Sping Healthcare was a parternship between Schembri and Shaukat Ali and his relatives, that was fronted by Accutor. Spring Healthcare would invoice a Steward subsidiary for consulting fees, but emails from Ernst show the payments were used to support “political and government activities and ineractions.”

Spring Healthcare was also being used by Schembri and Shaukat Ali to explore new business opportunities in the Philippines, for a major IT project, and a digital bank in Tunisia.

When COVID hit the Maltese islands, Spring Healthcare started trading in COVID-19 medical supplies. Investigators believe Schembri, an active part of these business ventures, was using funds from the concession for these new forays.

Karin Grech Hospital (Photo: James Bianchi/MaltaToday)
Karin Grech Hospital (Photo: James Bianchi/MaltaToday)

One of them was Cannapharm Technologies Malta, which was incorporated with money from Spring Healthcare and Accutor, paid into the client account of Vitals-Steward’s auditor Chris Spiteri.

Online reputation management financed by Vitals

Vitals Global Healthcare itself also paid some $9,000 a month over the course of 11 months, to a Dubai and Pakistani joint venture called Itech5, which ran online reputational management services for Konrad Mizzi and Keith Schembri.

Through the use of these services, Schembri and Mizzi’s online profiles and appearance in search engines were manipulated, to present them in a positive light – a kickback in all effects.