The Malta Independent 17 December 2018, Monday

Egrant Inc: One year on since Caruana Galizia’s damning stories about the Muscats

Helena Grech Friday, 20 April 2018, 13:19 Last update: about 9 months ago

Today marks the first anniversary since assassinated journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia once again rocked Malta’s political landscape by announcing that the infamous third company named in the Panama Papers scandal, Egrant Inc, belonged to the Prime Minister’s wife, Michelle Muscat.

It is also the one year anniversary of Prime Minister Joseph Muscat’s most famous denial: this is the biggest lie in Malta’s political history.

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In case you have forgotten, it also marks one year from when a Net television reporter filmed the now detained Iranian banker, Seyed Ali Sadr Hasheminejad, leaving Pilatus Bank through the back door, together with risk-manager Antoniella Gauci, formerly of KPMG, with a large suitcase.

While it is true that a week in politics is a long time, this particular week felt like an eternity, careening an already polarised nation into full-on political warfare.

Caruana Galizia, true to her style which guarantees maximum impact, started releasing information piece-by-piece, which all culminated to the allegations made on 20 April 2017 and effectively led to the calling of a snap election one year ahead of schedule, on 3 June 2017.

The controversial journalist was brutally murdered in a car bomb just meters away from her Bidnija residence on 16 October 2017. Last Monday marked the six month anniversary of her murder, given even bigger prominence due to a group of internationally renowned news organisations such as The Guardian, Reuters, The New York Times, Le Monde, together with The Times of Malta teamed up to continue the stories which the slain journalist had been working on, as an ultimate protest against those who commissioned the murder.

One particular story exposed a leak document showing a Dubai registered company which Caruana Galizia had written about, 17 Black, was intended to be one of the main clients of Minister Konrad Mizzi and the PM’s chief of staff Keith Schembri’s (below) Panama companies, Hearnville and Tilgate. This gives further credence to the stories Caruana Galizia reported on and shines a light on the information available to the embattled journalist.

 

So where did this all begin?

The foundations for the Egrant revelations made one year ago were rooted in the initial scandal which first propelled Malta into the international spotlight and began a two-year stint of genuine hostility between political parties and their respective followers: The Panama Papers scandal.

An extremely cryptic blog post on 22 February 2016 about Konrad Mizzi and New Zealand lamb got the ball rolling, causing Mizzi to frantically give an interview to Malta Today ‘revealing’ a trust registered in his name in New Zealand. Caruana Galizia went a step further and revealed that Mizzi held the New Zealand Trust to shelter a Panama company. Later she revealed that Keith Schembri used the same financial intermediary, Nexia BT, to set up the same offshore structures at the same time. The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists had been given access to a trove of leaked documents exposing dubious financial dealings from wealthy people all over the world.

Brian Tonna and Karl Cini of Nexia BT (above) registered a third company together with that of Mizzi and Schembri, the elusive Egrant Inc.

While the Opposition and members of civil society organised protests, called for police investigations and political accountability on the basis of Mizzi and Schembri’s companies, speculation was rife as to whom the third company, Egrant Inc, belongs to.

Konrad Mizzi was stripped from his Energy and Health portfolios, and became minister-without-portfolio, Keith Schembri enjoyed complete freedom and whispers continued to be uttered about Egrant Inc.

After the dust had seemingly begun to settle, Caruana Galizia issued a huge warning signal through her blog post – Egrant: hiding in plain sight. She spoke of large sums of money transferred to the three Panama companies through a bank in Malta set up after 2013. This post came on 15 April 2017.

Days after, she strategically introduced one of the main protagonists of the Egrant saga: Pilatus Bank, Ta’ Xbiex. On 19 April 2017, Caruana Galizia reported that Brian Tonna of Nexia BT had acquired a property in London with funds held within his BVI offshore company Willerby Trade Inc, through Pilatus Bank.

Later that day, she alleged that large sums of money where transferred to the three Panama companies by the daughter of the Azerbaijani dictator, Leyla Aliyeva, through Pilatus Bank.

The following afternoon, on 20 April 2017 at around 4pm, she gave further details of the alleged bank transfer by Aliyeva and the involvement of Nexia BT. Later that evening, at around 7pm, Caruana Galizia dropped the bombshell that:

“Those documents in the Pilatus Bank kitchen-safe are declarations of trust which show that shares in Egrant Inc are held by Mossack Fonseca nominees for “Mrs Michelle Muscat”.”

Here we also have the first mention of the infamous Pilatus Bank kitchen-safe, containing the alleged documents within pointing towards Muscat’s guilt.

This allegation led set the ball rolling for one of the most intense days in recent political history. Muscat held an urgent press conference late in the day at Castille, vociferously denying the claims and saying he has no choice but to sue for libel. He also agreed to resign should the allegations be proven.

After the tense press conference, Net News were tipped off about the lights at Pilatus Bank being on so late in the day. A reporter and cameraman filmed the Pilatus Bank chairman caught the man leaving the bank through the back door holding a suitcase. The former chairman is now being detained by the US government and facing up to 125 years in prison for circumventing US sanctions, money laundering and fraud.

Another reporter for the PN media also tracked down Police Commissioner Lawrence Cutajar who was enjoying a rabbit meal at Mgarr while all this was going on. He had no comments to give about the allegations and many crucified the man for failing to seal Pilatus Bank to ensure that no key evidence would be removed.

The following morning, The Malta Independent was informed of a mysterious plane that allegedly carried no passengers, just crew, which left for Baku, Azeribaijan and after made its way to Dubai. It is not known whether it was connected to the allegations, but the links to Azeribaijan through the alleged payments coupled with these fresh rounds of allegations on Dubai registered company 17 Black certainly provides cause for speculation.

After Caruana Galizia dropped the Egrant bombshell, Malta was later introduced to Maria Efimova, the Russian whistleblower who worked at Pilatus Bank and was one of her main sources of information.

Muscat continued to deny the allegations and discredit the whistleblower. Pilatus Bank had embarked on a heavy-handed campaign threatening news organisations to remove stories or otherwise face multi-million dollar lawsuits in foreign jurisdictions.

On 1 May, Muscat called a snap election, resulting in the Labour Party being awarded another historic victory. Konrad Mizzi was elected on the first count and Muscat was shown an extremely strong show of support.

The ensuing murder of Caruana Galizia and the emerging stories through The Daphne Project could risk weakening the support, not of the Labour Party itself, but of Joseph Muscat, Konrad Mizzi and Keith Schembri.

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