The one million dollars for Egrant that never existed

The magisterial inquiry heard four versions of how Pilatus Bank employee Maria Efimova came to know of the $1 million transaction between a company owned by Azerbaijani interests and Egrant Inc.

It was a Thursday afternoon when Daphne Caruana Galizia started putting flesh on the bare bones she had been dangling for almost a week.

At exactly 4:41pm on 20 April last year, the journalist published information on her blog about a $1 million transaction from an account at Pilatus Bank to another bank account in Dubai.

Caruana Galizia said the Pilatus account belonged to a company called Al Sahra FZCO, incorporated in Dubai, which belonged to Leyla Aliyeva, the daughter of Azerbaijani President, Ilham Aliyev.

The recipient of the funds was Egrant Inc., the third Panama company set up by Nexia BT at the same time that it was creating the companies Tillgate and Hearnville for Keith Schembri and Konrad Mizzi, respectively.

Caruana Galizia also alleged that several payments of $100,000 each had been made from Al Sahra’s account at Pilatus to that of Egrant in Dubai between January and March 2016.

Since the Panama Papers were outed in April 2016, the question on everyone’s mouth was who owned Egrant.

Caruana Galizia had said, in the days running up to 20 April, that she knew who Egrant belonged to. She had even dropped a strong hint by posting a photo of Leyla Aliyeva and Michelle Muscat, which was taken during an official visit to Malta by the Azerbaijani woman in 2014.

At exactly 7.59pm on 20 April, Caruana Galizia wrote on her blog that documents known as declarations of trust pertaining to Egrant Inc. had Michelle Muscat’s name on them. These documents came from a safe at Pilatus Bank and had been scanned and saved in the “cloud”.

At that stage, the implication was not just that the Prime Minister’s wife owned Egrant, but that she had also received $1 million from the daughter of Azerbaijan’s President in a Dubai bank account.

The rest is history but the magisterial inquiry concluded 15 months later has shed light on what has turned out to be a complete fabrication.

Efimova’s different versions

According to Caruana Galizia’s testimony, her primary source was the former Pilatus Bank employee Maria Efimova.

The Russian national had only been employed at the bank between January and March of 2016, a long-enough period it seems, for her to have seen and heard enough to pin Egrant Inc. to Michelle Muscat.

Efimova denied ever scanning the documents and showing them to Caruana Galizia. She told Magistrate Aaron Bugeja that it was Caruana Galizia who came forward with the documents.

The journalist told the magistrate a different story, pointing towards the former Pilatus employee as the source for the documents she had seen.

And this is where the story starts to unravel, including the allegation that Michelle Muscat received $1 million in her Egrant account.

Testifying in the inquiry, Efimova gave the magistrate four different versions but the biggest inconsistency was when she was asked whether she had seen any documents or bank statements indicating the money transfer and the companies involved.

On one occasion, she replied: “No, about Egrant I only remember this conversation they had.”

The conversation she referred to in this instance was supposed to have been a
heated exchange between Pilatus owner Ali Sadr Hasheminejad and Nexia BT owner Brian Tonna.

But in a subsequent appearance in front of the magistrate, Efimova changed tack and said she had seen payment instructions. “Yes, I’m sure that I saw the name of the beneficiary and it was Egrant Inc.”

And in yet another version, Efimova amplified on the alleged transaction by saying this was a loan payment to Schembri’s Panama company Tillgate.

Caruana Galizia had also said that the $1 million transaction had found difficulty in passing through because of concerns raised by the US correspondent bank used by Pilatus. She had also indicated a Nexia BT employee, without naming him, who was pestering the bank over this transaction until it passed through.

From the inquiry, it transpired the former Nexia employee was a certain Michael Satariano, who denied having pestered the bank on this transaction. In his deposition with the magistrate, Satariano said he had been chasing Pilatus on behalf of two Italian clients unconnected to the Egrant saga.

The Russian national had only been employed at the bank between January and March of 2016, a long-enough period it seems, for her to have seen and heard enough to pin Egrant Inc. to Michelle Muscat.

Wrong names, wrong conclusions

The forensic accountant appointed by the magistrate could find no digital or paper trail of such a transaction between Sahra FZCO’s Pilatus account and Egrant, Tillgate and Hearnville. Moreover, no company by the name Al Sahra existed, despite Caruana Galizia’s insistence that the name was given to her by Efimova. The Russian national told the magistrate Caruana Galizia got the name wrong.

Sahra FZCO is indeed owned by the Aliyeva sisters, Leyla and Arzu, and had an account at Pilatus Bank.

But interestingly, the inquiry noted that transactions to the amounts indicated by Caruana Galizia did exist in bank records but these were between different companies to the ones she wrote about.

Sahra FZCO had transferred millions from its Pilatus Bank account to bank accounts in Dubai but the beneficiaries were not Egrant, Tillgate and Hearnville.

Regular payments to the tune of $100,000 had been recorded but these were made by Ali Sadr to companies and people related to him. No evidence emerged that such payments were made to a company called Egrant.

Indeed, the inquiry concluded that Egrant, Tillgate and Hearnville never had accounts at Pilatus Bank and no sign of attempts to open accounts for them were found.

None of these companies ever received funds from bank accounts held at Pilatus by politically exposed persons from Azerbaijan.

The inquiry findings shot down the allegations made by Caruana Galizia on that eventful day, 15 months ago, exonerating the Muscats.

When contacted by MaltaToday for an answer to the inconsistencies flagged by the magistrate, Efimova responded from Greece that she wanted to read an English translation of the inquiry findings before commenting.