Pilatus Bank in media outreach to ‘disprove’ whistleblower’s salary claims

Pilatus Bank invited reporters from different media houses in an attempt to disprove claims by its former employee that she had not been paid her salary

The Ta’ Xbiex bank at the heart of allegations surrounding the ownership of Egrant Inc has reached out to the media for the second time, this time to challenge claims that it had failed to pay one of its former employees.

The worker in question is the woman whom Daphne Caruana Galizia revealed to be the source of allegations tying Michelle Muscat, the wife of Prime Minister Joseph Muscat, to Egrant Inc.

The woman has also appeared before the magisterial inquiry investigating the matter. The Malta Independent on Sunday also published a first-person interview with woman. Among allegations that the woman had not been paid her salary, she also said that she had seen “two declarations of trust with the name ‘Muscat’.”

“I hadn’t been in the country long enough to know that it is quite a common name here. I recognised it because is the Prime Minister’s name. The company name was Egrant Inc and I knew that name because it was on my list.”

The woman said that she had been given a list of companies, which also included Hearnville Inc and Tillgate Inc. These are the names of Panamanian companies set up for Keith Schembri and Konrad Mizzi. The two have denied that the companies ever held any bank accounts. An audit carried out by Crowe Howarth, in New Zealand, also stated that no bank accounts had been held.

In her interview, the woman, a Russian national, also delved into how she had been fired - in March 2016 and three months after her employment with the bank – without receiving her salary. She reported the matter to the Department of Industrial and Employment Relations. The woman claims that afterwards, Pilatus Bank filed a police report against her accusing her of fraud and misappropriation of funds.

It was in August that the police arraigned the woman before the Court of Magistrates. The woman also faces charges for defaming the police who arrested her, specifically Superintendent Denis Theuma and inspectors Jonathan Ferris and Lara Butters. Ferris and Butters had arraigned the woman under arrest before the criminal court. The charges to this second case were also filed in August last year.

Pilatus Bank reaches out to media

Yesterday afternoon, Pilatus Bank invited journalists to visit their offices in Ta’ Xbiex, individually. The invitation was made on condition that no recording, photographic or video of any kind are taken and that the whistleblower's identity is not revealed.

The visit shed no light on the Egrant allegations as the bank tried to punch holes in the woman’s salary allegations. Pilatus Bank said it would show documentation to prove that the woman had been paid. They said that questions would be answered by email, after the visit, which they did.

CCTV footage

The bank presented CCTV footage of cash, the denomination of notes unclear, but 30 in number, being counted out and placed in an envelope. That envelope was passed on to an unnamed bank employee. In a different room, or at least a different camera, someone is seen handing a woman, who we are told is the whistleblower, what appear to be two purple banknotes and five orange/beige ones. The woman places them in her handbag.

[The cash would amount to around €2,100. The woman told the Times of Malta that this money was meant “to pay outstanding traffic tickets incurred by the chairman’s wife”. Payment had to be affected at the Sliema local council].

SMS exchanges

Also shown were screenshots of SMS exchanges, ostensibly between Pilatus Bank CEO Hamidreza Ghanbari and the woman in which the latter seems to be asking about a discrepancy in her salary payment for February.

Some digits of the woman's phone number were redacted. Ghanbari's number was not visible.

Ghanbari's SMS reply is to the effect that salaries are calculated on a per day basis and her €25,000 salary, divided by 366 days multiplied by February's 29 days gave the amount she was due.

Another printout of a text message, dated 24th March in which she asked if she would be paid on that day, was also seen.

The SMSs would seem to indicate that, despite claims to the contrary, the woman had in fact been paid.

[In comments to The Times of Malta, the woman said she never sent the SMS mentioned by the bank].

The company retreat

Reporters were shown invoices for a ‘company retreat’ to Frankfurt in the Schlosshotel Kronberg, addressed to the whistleblower. The bank says she handled the booking arrangements herself.

The woman brought her husband with her and had booked a separate room, which according to the invoice sent to the bank, was charged at a higher rate than the room used by the CEO and Chairman.

[‘Since I had no residence permit, the only way I could travel abroad was in his company and so the bank offered to cover his expenses. Since he was taking care of our children, I booked a triple room that was more expensive than the rest,’ she told The Times of Malta]

Reporters were also shown that room's room service bill: 2 x breakfasts, 7x room service, costing €399.50 - a total cost including two nights accommodation €1049.50.

The bank says it only became aware of the extra charges after the hotel had contacted them in April, by which time the woman’s employment had already been terminated.

Reporters were shown the woman’s termination letter which simply said that her employment was terminated on 29th March, signed by CEO Gharbani, with “deliver by hand,” written on it.

Also displayed were the resignation letters of other employees whose employment, it is claimed, was terminated on the same day as the woman.


Why does the bank pay its employees in cash?

Pilatus Bank: The Bank was told by Mrs. AB that she did not have a Maltese bank account due to the fact that she had not yet established residency in Malta and required payment in cash.

€25,000 looks too high for an internship salary. What was her job description?

Pilatus Bank: We extended an employment contract to Mrs. AB subject to her receiving a residency permit.  Since Mrs. AB never established residency in Malta during her tenure at the Bank, the employment contract never went into effect.  Her designation upon receiving her residency permit would have been that of an Executive Assistant.

I didn't see AB's contract amongst the documents I was shown. Why was that?

Pilatus Bank: Due to the fact that Mrs. AB did not obtain her residency permit prior to her dismissal, therefore there was no effective employment contract.

Why was her employment terminated? The termination letter doesn't shed any light.

Pilatus Bank: On 29 March the Bank decided not to pursue the Employment Contract that was offered which was subject to Mrs. AB receiving her residency permit, which was never presented to the Bank.

Doesn't the fact that AB managed to run up and then conceal a large expenses bill, which was only discovered after her employment was terminated, point to inadequate internal controls?

Pilatus Bank: Unfortunately, no company can prevent a staff member from abusing their authority.  Given the fact that these amounts were under €1,100, we feel that the Bank’s controls did work and that the Bank responded quickly and appropriately as soon as the Bank was alerted to the improper conduct.

Termination was 29th March, but when was AB's employment date?

Pilatus Bank: Mrs. AB was offered her employment contract on 15 January, 2016.

I didn't see any DIER correspondence. Why?

Pilatus Bank: The documents we provided were all in reference to the pending criminal trial against Mrs. AB.  The DIER case is a separate matter and has been postponed given the other criminal case against Mrs. AB.  Therefore we did not provide any documents in relation to that case.

Any comment on the criminal action against the bank for failing to pay her wages? What stage are those proceedings at?

Pilatus Bank: We feel that we demonstrated with the documents you saw, as well as the CCTV footage that the questions regarding the Bank’s failure to pay Mrs. AB have been answered.  The DIER case is a separate matter and has been postponed given the other criminal case against Mrs. AB.