Steward hired private intelligence firms to target Minister Chris Fearne and critics

Documents obtained by the Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project show Steward engaged private intelligence firms using concession money to spy on key opponents and critics

Steward boss Armin Ernst (right) and health minister Chris Fearne at the opening of the Barts campus at the Gozo General Hospital
Steward boss Armin Ernst (right) and health minister Chris Fearne at the opening of the Barts campus at the Gozo General Hospital

Steward Healthcare, currently at the centre of a controversial hospital management deal, engaged private intelligence firms to target key opponents and critics, including Health Minister Chris Fearne.

According to documents obtained by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), and shared with Times of Malta and the Boston Globe, Steward clashed with the Maltese health minister over the terms of its agreement to manage several hospitals in Malta.

In response, Steward enlisted CT Group, a London-based private intelligence firm, to create a damaging report accusing the health minister of accepting a substantial bribe. This report was subsequently circulated among journalists, aiming to discredit the minister.

These bribery claims started to appear in several Pakistani news portals, and eventually made their way to a Brussels-based and a Ukrainian news outlet. The claims alleged that Fearne's chief of staff, Carmen Ciantar, received thousands in payments from a company linked to Vitals Global Healthcare.

READ ALSOCarmen Ciantar’s bribery allegations: Where are they coming from?

Additionally, Steward maintained regular communication with another UK private intelligence firm, Audere, to execute "false flag" operations against a financial research company that had issued a critical report on Steward.

Surveillance reports reveal that the critic, who ran the research firm, was spied on at his home and followed. Audere also gathered embarrassing personal information and photographs of a former Steward employee, fearing he might leak financial details to an auditor.

When MaltaToday wrote an article about this report, Steward International wrote to the Maltese government demanding an investigation against journalist and editor Matthew Vella.

A year later, Steward filed a damaging lawsuit against MaltaToday and Vella in Spain. Before initiating the legal action Steward Healthcare had unsuccessfully attempted to purchase MediaToday Co. Ltd, the company owning Maltatoday.

The financial burden of these intelligence operations fell on Steward's Malta subsidiary, which is primarily funded by Maltese taxpayers. The intelligence firms' services often came at a steep price, with monthly charges reaching up to $170,000. Despite these substantial expenditures, Steward executives made these payments a priority, even as essential bills for medical services in its U.S. hospitals remained unpaid.