Minister cannot say if ‘Egrant’ magistrate has requested to take inquiry abroad

Nationalist MP asks minister whether any magistrate requested the facility to go abroad in the process of carrying out an inquiry

Justice minister Owen Bonnici
Justice minister Owen Bonnici

The minister for justice has refused to declare in the House if any magistrate had requested the facility and resources to travel abroad for the purposes of conducting a magisterial inquiry.

The question put to Owen Bonnici was by Nationalist MP Jason Azzopardi, ostensibly referring to the so called Egrant inquiry, which is being led by Magistrate Aaron Bugeja.

The inquiry was launched upon a request to the Commissioner of Police by Prime Minister Joseph Muscat, over allegations that his wife was the owner of a secret offshore company, Egrant Inc, and that she had received a $1 million payment from the Azeri ruling family.

Azzopardi asked the minister to give information on the number of requests to the Chief Justice by inquiring magistrates asking for resources to travel abroad, as part of a magisterial inquiry in 2017. He also requested to know who the magistrate was, and regarding which inquiry the request was made.

In his reply, Bonnici said Azzopardi’s question demanded an answer that could undermine the secrecy for magistrates. He said that magistrates were entitled to engage any expert and to carry out their investigations without interference from the government.

“If the magistrate needs an expert, it is my duty to lower my head and do as the magistrate requests,” said Bonnici, adding that there were hundreds of inquiries a year, with hundreds of thousands of Euro spent engaging these experts.

Bonnici added that he was “definitely not comfortable asking the chief justice how many requests of this nature were made”, especially since it seemed that the question was referring to ongoing inquiries.

He said that if an inquiring magistrate asks to go abroad, this is approved without the knowledge of the minister. Furthermore, he insisted that magisterial inquiries were secret to the point that they could only be published with the approval of the Attorney General.

This prompted Azzopardi to question how it was therefore possible for the Prime Minister to have stated that he would be publishing the results of the inquiry once it is completed.

Bonnici said the Prime Minister had said that the Attorney General would be asked for permission to publish the report once it was completed, pointing out that in cases like the inquiry into the Paqpaqli incident the AG had allowed the publication of the report because it was of national importance.

The inquiry is slated to take a long time to conclude, as the magistrate appears to have expanded his net in his investigations. Magistrate Bugeja has sent letters of request to the Attorneys General in a number of countries, asking them to verify if certain Maltese individuals own accounts in those countries and to provide statements for any such accounts.
This is a very lengthy process as most countries would normally check to confirm the veracity of the request and the body asking for the data. Once confirmed, the AGs would then pass on the request to the banks and other financial institutions in their jurisdictions.

Egrant was opened in Panama in 2013 at the same time as two other companies were revealed in the Panama Papers scandal to have been opened by the prime minister’s chief of staff, Keith Schembri, and Minister Konrad Mizzi.

A Russian woman has testified before the magistrate to the effect that when she was employed at Pilatus Bank as personal assistant to the chairman, she had seen documents listing Muscat as owning shares in Egrant, in a safe at the bank.

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