Egrant magistrate seeks UK help over alleged $400,000 Pilatus transfer to Michelle Muscat’s US friend

Magistrate Aaron Bugeja has sought UK forensic IT assistance as he probes the allegation that the sister of Pilatus Bank chairman used an account at the bank to transfer $400,000 to the friend of Prime Minister Joseph Muscat's wife in the USA

Michelle Buttigieg (left) is a business partner of Michelle Muscat, who lives in New York. Negarin Sadr (right) is the sister of Pilatus Bank chairman Seyed Ali Sadr Hasheminejad
Michelle Buttigieg (left) is a business partner of Michelle Muscat, who lives in New York. Negarin Sadr (right) is the sister of Pilatus Bank chairman Seyed Ali Sadr Hasheminejad

The magisterial inquiry into allegations of a secret Panama offshore company owned by the wife of the Maltese Prime Minister, is seeking information on an alleged $400,000 transfer from Pilatus Bank to a business partner of Michelle Muscat in the USA.

Magistrate Aaron Bugeja requested forensic IT assistance in the UK to carry out a search for specific details of the alleged transfer from Pilatus chairman Seyed Ali Sadr Hasheminejad’s sister – a fashion designer – to Michelle Buttigieg. A similar request originally made nine months ago to American authorities, has not yet delivered any result on whether the transaction took place or not.

A source close to the inquiry said IT investigators in the United Kingdom now are being requested to find any evidence that can support this allegation, by revisiting keywords from a database extracted from Pilatus Bank.

The allegation was one of several posted by the slain journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia in April 2017, who said Pilatus Bank had received instructions in March 2016 to open an account for Negarin Sadr, and credit it with a $1 million loan for her fashion business.

Caruana Galizia then said that another instruction followed as soon as the loan was processed, to have a significant portion of it – approximately US$400,000 – to be paid out of Negarin Sadr’s loan account to a bank account held by (as she then paraphrased her source as saying) “a Maltese woman who lives in New York and has a jewellery business called Buttardi.”

She was referring to Michelle Buttigieg, a Maltese resident in the USA who ran the Buttardi costume jewellery business in partnership with Michelle Muscat since 2003.

Buttigieg controversially was made a Malta Tourism Authority representative in New York in 2013 and paid €61,000 annually.

Negarin Sadr runs the fashion line Negarin London.

The allegation was published a day after Prime Minister Joseph Muscat filed an official complaint to have an inquiring magistrate investigate the allegation that his wife was the beneficial owner of the Panama company Egrant Inc, which had been revealed back in 2016 in the Panama Papers as having been opened by Nexia BT but without its owner being revealed in the email conversations with Mossack Fonseca.

Caruana Galizia had declared that Michelle Muscat was revealed to have been the company’s owner because a declaration of trust had been deposited in a safe held inside Pilatus Bank. Joseph Muscat dubbed the allegation “the biggest lie ever in Maltese political history” but the allegations pushed him to call a general election for June 2017, a year early. Throughout his campaign, Muscat insisted he would resign if any evidence tied him or his family members to the Panamanian offshore company, and challenged Caruana Galizia to publish any proof backing her claims.

In the course of events, it emerged that a former Pilatus Bank employee – Russian national Maria Efimova – was the source of Caruana Galizia’s allegations. In September 2016, months before the Egrant allegations, Efimova had written an email to the President of the Republic, copied to the English-language press, denying the misappropriation claims, and insisting she was not allowed to travel outside Malta while out on bail.

Only recently, Efimova told a delegation of MEPs on a mission to investigate the rule of law in Malta, that she had not been Caruana Galizia’s original source on the existence of the declaration of trust at Pilatus.

In a video conference with the delegation, Efimova made it clear that she could not reveal certain information which she had passed on to Magistrate Aaron Bugeja.

Efimova absconded from Malta in the course of a criminal case brought against her by Pilatus Bank on misappropriation charges. In November 2017, a warrant for her arrest was issued to have her appear in court to testify. Only this month, Cypriot authorities issued an arrest warrant on a complaint lodged against her four years earlier by the company IDF Fragrance Distribution, with whom she worked.

Efimova was also accused by police of lodging a false complaint against the police inspector who arrested her, Jonathan Ferris, who later left the corps to become an investigator for the Financial Intelligence Analysis Unit. Ferris was, however, fired from the FIAU soon after the June elections, while still on probation. Ferris would later claim his investigations on Pilatus Bank were stalled due to political pressure. He has now requested whistleblower status from the Attorney General.