Nexia boss won’t appear before PANA committee: ‘I own Egrant,’ Tonna insists

Nexia BT owner Brian Tonna insists he is the sole owner of Egrant, a mysterious offhsore company created at the same time as Konrad Mizzi’s and Keith Schembri’s Panamanian offshore companies

Brian Tonna: The Nexia owner insists he is the sole owner of the offshore company Egrant
Brian Tonna: The Nexia owner insists he is the sole owner of the offshore company Egrant

As the auditors who enabled Maltese minister Konrad Mizzi and the prime minister’s chief of staff Keith Schembri to open secret offshore companies in Panama, Nexia BT’s Brian Tonna and Karl Cini are high on the ‘wanted list’ of MEPs who tomorrow Monday will meet tax officials, journalists, and MPs to discuss the Panama Papers.

When Panamagate broke in 2016, the two men were revealed to have held the keys to Mizzi’s and Schembri’s plans to hive off earnings and use a Panamanian bank.

But the Mossack Fonseca leak that revealed the names of ‘Tillgate’ and ‘Hearnville’ as the vehicles set up by Nexia BT for their two politically exposed clients (PEPs) also exposed the mysterious company ‘Egrant’. Its owner was not disclosed in email conversations between Cini and his Mossack Fonseca handler in Panama, saying only he would communicate details over a Skype conversation.

Opposition leader Simon Busuttil has left little to the imagination in his accusations, jabbing Prime Minister Joseph Muscat to tell the public whether he knows who Egrant’s owner is – with Muscat repeatedly denying he is the beneficiary of the Panama company.

Nexia BT told MaltaToday this letter from Mossack Fonseca confirms that Egrant never traded since its acquisition
Nexia BT told MaltaToday this letter from Mossack Fonseca confirms that Egrant never traded since its acquisition

But Brian Tonna, whose firm has enjoyed a close relationship with the Labour government, has insisted in email answers to MaltaToday that he remains the sole owner of Egrant, a company that never traded.

“I have already made it very clear that Egrant, purchased by my firm in July 2013, is a shelf company, that is a ready-made company that is available for a client to acquire. It has never had, and does not currently have, any client as ultimate beneficial owner, and it has never been active,” Tonna said in an email through his lawyer.

A letter he supplied from Mossack Fonseca officer Ricardo Samaniego, dated 16 February, 2017, reiterates the claim that Egrant was acquired by Tonna through his own firm BTI Management on 9 August, 2013, remaining its sole ultimate beneficial owner. No powers of attorney were issued to anyone except to Tonna and Cini, Samanieg - who represents thsouands of companies as a nominee director - says in his letter [Samaniego is himself implicated in various scandals related to tax avoidance on various offshore structures created by Mossack Fonseca for people such as footballing ace Lionel Messi]. Egrant is currently in dissolution.

“I feel the attention on us has been unfair, and I simply wish to clarify any misconceptions and speculation that has been repeated ad nauseam in the media,” Tonna said.

Tonna’s declaration may not quell the PN’s insistence that Egrant was destined as a secret vehicle for Joseph Muscat. When Panamagate broke, the Mossack Fonseca leak included documents up to mid-2015. Nexia’s email conversations revealed Mizzi and Schembri’s identities. Egrant itself was earmarked for a UBO that was not Nexia. Even if Egrant never traded and direct proof of Muscat’s involvement does not exist, the Maltese prime minister remains tainted by the Panama Papers by the presence of his chief of staff and minister in the two companies.

Tonna said those instructions that Cini would have relayed to Mossack Fonseca on Egrant via a Skype conversation, never took place.

“It is common practice to communicate via Skype as it is practical and cost-effective. Many practitioners use it. No instructions were ever given to Mossack Fonseca whether by Skype or any other means of communication to change the ultimate beneficial ownership of Egrant,” he said.

Through his forceful condemnations of the Panama scandal, PN leader Simon Busuttil has kept up the fight on Egrant. “Egrant is the company which no one knows to whom it belongs,” he has told supporters. “We know what ‘grant’ means and ‘E’ can easily stand for elections,” Busuttil suggested in a wordplay meant to prick people’s ears on Labour skulduggery.

Last Sunday he insisted in Sliema: “The Prime Minister last week insulted me personally in Parliament because I dared ask him who Egrant belongs to. I will not accept a hand of friendship from a corrupt government, as the offer is a hypocritical one.”

Tonna and Cini will not be attending tomorrow’s hearing with a delegation of the PANA committee in Malta.

“As soon as we received the Committee’s invitation, we informed them that we will collaborate fully and to the extent possible. However, because of the need to ensure that we observe our legal obligations, we advised that we considered it appropriate to receive and to reply to questions put to us in writing.

“We therefore invited the Committee to consider putting their questions to us in such manner and we committed to make ourselves available to provide our replies. We received the questions from the Committee [on Saturday] and we are now working on our answers.”

MaltaToday has been summoned to attend one of the hearings with journalists, which also include the Times of Malta and blogger Daphne Caruana Galizia, who broke the story ahead of the International Consortium for Investigative Journalism (ICIJ). The international body had been working on the leaks of some 11.5 million documents over the course of 2015 and 2016.

Amongst these leaks were the companies of Mizzi and Schembri, acquired in June 2015 from a Mossack Fonseca-related firm, ATC Administrators. Hearnville and Tillgate had originally been set up in June 2013 by two other MF-related companies, Dubro SA and Aliator SA, which have ownership of various other similar shelf companies.

The companies were acquired by Mizzi and Schembri and their ownership vested in trustees controlling offshore trusts in New Zealand, respectively Rotorua and Haast. The revelations shook the Labour government, and the PN led two anti-corruption protests in Valletta, demanding that Mizzi and Schembri be sacked from the government. Muscat retained Schembri by his side, and cosmetically demoted Mizzi as a minister without portfolio, who however retains responsibility for energy affairs even now during the presidency of the European Council.

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