[WATCH] Passport agent in French TV sting submits full recording to magistrate

Passport agent says: ‘Full video shows I did not boast of influencing IIP passport decisions’

Jean-Philippe Chetcuti won a French court order to obtain the full, unedited recording of the sting
Jean-Philippe Chetcuti won a French court order to obtain the full, unedited recording of the sting
Passport agent in French TV sting submits full recording to magistrate

The immigration lawyer secretly recorded in a French TV sting and portrayed as boasting of his political connections, has won a French court order to obtain the full, unedited recording from the producers of M6’s Enquete Exclusive.

Jean-Philippe Chetcuti, whose firm’s two licences to sell the lucrative Maltese citizenship programme to the global elite were suspended in the aftermath of the broadcast in September 2019, has now submitted the full recording to an inquiring magistrate.

The magisterial inquiry was launched on an application by the civil society NGO Repubblika, accusing the firm of alleged trading in influence in connection with the sale of Maltese passports.

But Chetcuti, who has shown the full video to MaltaToday, insists he has done nothing wrong and accused the French TV producers of having carried out a “dishonest cut-and-paste” of what was a one hour and 20 minute conversation, to give the impression that he could use political connections to serve clients who fail due diligence on the Individual Investor Programme.

“The video shows I did not say anything of that sort… I did not say I could get rejections of IIP applicants overturned, but that I could avoid an expensive rejection by withdrawing these clients early on if the IIP’s assessment of bad press renders the applicant unapprovable.

“The spirit of the entire conversation was about the strict standards of due diligence employed in the IIP, yet the few seconds in which I reply to the journalist’s isolated questions about whether I know a minister or not were amplified to suit a preconceived narrative.

“The video shows how misrepresented the entire conversation was, which is why I have submitted the entire recording to the magistrate because there was no attempt at trading in influence,” Chetcuti said.

Chetcuti denied suggesting he could lobby a minister to push through the IIP application of someone rejected by the Malta IIP Agency or because they have a criminal record.

“The recording clearly shows me telling the journalist that clients facing rejection because of early due diligence problems, or criminal histories, are not even onboarded,” Chetcuti says.

The M6 programme portrayed Chetcuti as being boastful about his wife knowing former citizenship parliamentary secretary Julia Farrugia-Portelli, and of having known former prime minister Joseph Muscat as a school-friend.

But the full video shows Chetcuti answering an isolated question from the journalist as to whether he personally knew Farrugia-Portelli. In the ensuing conversation on Malta’s small size, Chetcuti then volunteers information that he was a school-mate of Joseph Muscat.

“I was replying to isolated questions from the journalist, but the context is far removed from any suggestion that these contacts could help me overcome rejection of clients.”

Chetcuti was also portrayed at the start of the French TV reveal as if he was boasting of passport parties held his office. Yet the full recording shows him saying – at the end of the long conversation – that his clients get their passports, and they are encouraged to invest more in the country by opening up businesses or buying real estate.

Early warning of rejection

The lawyer contends that he does not pursue any applications when the MIIPA finds problems with client applications or histories at a preliminary screening stage, unless he can provide information that assuages initial concerns.

Still, leaked excerpts of the full video that were published on Rutube.com, also appeared to show Chetcuti saying he could obtain helpful ‘hints’ from the MIIPA as to whether an unsuccessful application could be aided by proving more information.

Controversially, Chetcuti says in the full video (55’50’’):

“There are limited cases where we can fight for a reconsideration, but the odds are against you, with a first-level rejection… because there’s no appeals mechanism” – a reference to the MIIPA’s prerogative to reject applications without explaining the reason and without any chance of appeal.

“In fact, for me it’s just lobbying. I keep on a friendly level… so I don’t tell the minister ‘you’ve done a mistake or you’ve done a bad job’. We say ‘look, I think with some more information, we can have a fuller picture’ – and sometimes, because they can’t tell me what the reason is, they can wink when I suggest certain things. And therefore it helps me submit information that can contradict that information.”

Chetcuti also says he forewarns applicants that he cannot push through applications with problematic histories (56’50’’): “I’m always very careful to explain to people like that, ‘look it doesn’t mean I can get something done if it’s not... but [the pre-check with MIIPA) it improves the chances... So that’s the way I operate, so to do it the right way, if there is a concern, address the concern. And if it’s not doable, we can be honest and say, ‘I can’t help here’.”

Chetcuti is, in fact, also recorded earlier on in the video saying he meets the MIIPA head because the agency requests additional information on applicants being processed.

“We meet every month,” Chetcuti is heard saying in the video, “to go over the list [of pending applications]… many times he tells me ‘withdraw this as we don’t think we’re going to accept this’.”

Chetcuti denies saying that he can influence a minister to overrule a rejection. “What I explained in the video was that I discuss my clients’ applications regularly so that I can understand from the MIIPA whether I will need more information from the client to bolster their case.”

Chetcuti also insists the recording shows him impressing upon the journalist the rigorous process of due diligence.

At 15’57” Chetcuti says:

“Malta is on the other extreme. Malta ranks very well, and in a way, that also means that it is stricter, but when you’re approaching a bank and you’re showing that you’ve passed through a very rigorous immigration process with Malta – and Malta is famed to be the gold standard of due diligence – it helps.”

Chetcuti says his firm pre-checks its applicants with MIIPA when there is bad press or political connections (22’40”) during screening meetings.

“We speak to various stakeholders, head of the programme in the ministry… to understand how they will react to it and whether the justification would work. As much as possible we do that on a no-name basis… we say ‘look, this client has this kind of political exposure’… usually the answer isn’t a straight no, sometimes it is. Usually the answer is ‘it’s dealt on a case-by-case basis. You need to satisfy these requirements, or you need to explain this or show that this is false. Sometimes it’s a matter of discrediting the media source.”

During these meetings, Chetcuti says the MIIPA head could advise him to withdraw applications the agency is uncomfortable with (24’25”):

“I can’t guarantee this but many times he tells ‘withdraw this as we don’t think we’re going to accept this. That’s invaluable as it saves the client a rejection.”

Transparency on IIP names: lawyer claims he can use lengthy court case to delay publication of names

In the recording, Chetcuti suggests that a case on behalf of an IIP applicant wanting to prevent the publication of his name in the annual register of naturalised citizens could be won in the courts by suing the government.

Chetcuti says there are “very good legal arguments” based on the right to privacy, family life and security; but adds that “it helps that the government doesn’t fight back” after years of court wrangling.

In this excerpt, Chetcuti suggests that filing a prohibitory injunction to temporarily postpone publication, followed by legal action, could take four years for a first judgement.

“Worst-case scenario: we lose, we appeal,” he says, surmising it would take another five years for a decision. “My understanding, and it’s not a guess, is that after nine years of delaying it, the government is not going to remember and be so organised to say ‘ah, nine years we could not publish this name, let’s publish him now.’ So my gut feeling is that even after nine years, they will not publish him because they… don’t have an interest to do it, they don’t get anything from it.

“But we have a very good legal basis for it.”

MaltaToday has regularly published stories demanding that the MIIPA releases an IIP-only list. A Freedom of Information request on this matter alone has been rejected.

The Maltese government tries to short-circuit media interest in the IIP by publishing the naturalisation list during the Christmas season, and by listing names – and not surnames – alphabetically in a deliberate ploy to prevent journalists from identifying families of applicants.

The MIIPA has also refused to issue statistics on success rates by Maltese licencees of the IIP.

And the IIP regulator has suggested that MPs could be given confidential access to the IIP citizen list.