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Simon Busuttil, Keith Schembri testify in libel case: Schembri says he never received kickbacks

Monday, 16 October 2017, 12:21 Last update: about 8 years ago

PN MP and former Opposition Leader Simon Busuttil and OPM Chief of Staff Keith Schembri testified in court today in a libel case Schembri filed against Busuttil over a speech given during an anti-corruption protest in March 2016.

The case is being heard before Magistrate Francesco Depasquale.

The case was dominated by arguments that transcripts of Busuttil's speech were not yet presented in court by Schembri, that Schembri did not identify where in his speech Busuttil made defamatory remarks, and allegations that Busuttil was not responding to certain questions.

Busuttil’s defence lawyer – Peter Fenech – argued that Keith Schembri and his lawyers must identify where, in the speech, Busuttil directly called Schembri corrupt.

Asked by lawyer Paul Lia – representing Schembri - whether Busuttil had organised a public protest primarily against Keith Schembri, Busuttil said it was against corruption, against the government as a whole and a number of incidents, including that Keith Schembri and Minister Konrad Mizzi had companies in Panama, but stressed that this wasn’t the only reason for it.

He mentioned a number of other incidents the protest was based on, including the Gaffarena scandals, which he said were central to the protest.

“One must remember that Konrad Mizzi was not only found to have a company in Panama, but was also involved in the agreements regarding the biggest contracts over the past years, like the Electrogas contract which tied the country to purchase electricity from that power station whether we use it or not, and the privatisation of the three hospitals.”

An argument broke out between Fenech and Lia when Lia asked Busuttil to say whether Schembri is corrupt, with Fenech asking Lia to identify where it results that Busuttil had directly said it on that day. Fenech said that from the news reports, it does not look like Busuttil had said those words.

Lia argued that Busuttil had called a protest against corruption, and individualised the company Keith Schembri had in Panama. Lia said he had submitted a cd of the speech.

Turning to a report of the protest by The Malta Independent, Busuttil said it quoted him as saying that Malta is in a corruption crisis, and that it went on to mention a number of scandals like Zonqor and Gaffarena.

Peter Fenech added that The Malta Independent report quoted Busuttil as saying that Keith Schembri set up a company in Panama, while people were spending high prices on fuel.

The magistrate asked Simon Busuttil about part of his speech which appeared in news reports, where he said that if he were in Muscat’s place, he would have told Schembri to leave.

Busuttil said that Schembri was caught with a secret Panama company, opened after taking a public office. “In any other country this is a scandal and he would have been kicked out within five minutes. The only reason it did not happen in Malta is because the Police Commissioner did not do his job, nor did the Attorney General.” He said that the Chief Justice himself has said that when they do not do their job, the rule of law collapses. He mentioned that he went before other magistrates to ask for an investigation, and that Magistrate Ian Faddugia accepted that a criminal investigation should take place, adding that Keith Schembri and others appealed before Mr Justice Antonio Mizzi on the issue.

He mentioned that the Prime Minister’s Chief of Staff is not meant to open secret companies in Panama, adding that any normal person suspects something is wrong.

He quoted the definition of corruption from Transparency International: “Corruption takes many forms but always involves abuse of entrusted power for private gain.”

Paul Lia then pitched in – “So you are saying that Keith Schembri abused his power for personal gain?” Busuttil’s defence highlighted that the libel case is on the speech delivered in March 2016, and not what was said in court today, and Simon Busuttil added that he is testifying without knowing which part of his speech Keith Schembri felt defamed him.

Paul Lia then asked if Busuttil ever had any correspondence with former FIAU Director Manfred Galdes. Peter Fenech accused Lia of going on a fishing expedition, and was asking such questions just because the press were present in court.

Magistrate Depasquale asked Busuttil why he made reference to Transparency International’s definition of corruption. Busuttil replied that he had done so because it seems there are people with a different understanding of the term. He mentioned that if someone is working as a Chief of Staff for the Prime Minister, earning €50,000 a year, then he can’t tie himself to deposit €1 million a year. 

He quoted an email which was found in the Panama Papers dated 2 December 2015, in which Karl Cini gave instructions for an account to be opened for the secret company." He wanted to keep it hidden, so much so that he gave instructions for no audit to occur and or confidentiality."

Busuttil said "if you earn €50,000 a year for your sole form of income, then commit yourself to paying a million a year, then it is evident that there is private gain from your position of power."

Busuttil mentioned that Transparency International tweeted last September that Malta needs to clean up its corruption mess before it heads the EU council. “I don’t think you libelled Transparency International as well?”

Paul Lia argued that the witness does not want to answer the question. “Are you saying he abused his power?” Busuttil then said “enough evidence for magistrate Ian Farrugia to call for an investigation.”

Peter Fenech then accused Lia of making statements just for the media’s sake, again stressing that this was a fishing expedition.

Asked about why he waited so long to call for such an investigation, he said he was waiting for the authorities to investigate, which they had not done, and thus went before the magistrate himself.

Keith Schembri took the stand, and said that this was the first time in two years that he has had to really say his part and couldn’t reply because of his position and because of a medical condition he was suffering from.

He said he never took any kickbacks, and testified that while he left positions he held to become Chief of Staff, it did not mean he gave up his shareholdings, thus saying that the €50,000 argument a year is not relevant.

If he wanted to make money, he said, he has companies which are successful.

Turning to the accusations regarding Adrian Hillman and him, he said that he has evidence that he paid for work done, and said that it is all documented.

Referring to Busuttil, Schembri said that “in his speech he insinuated that I am corrupt, we’ve been here for an hour and a half and he hasn’t said it again in here. If I am not corrupt, he should say it.”

Asked how he felt about the allegations against him, Schembri said that they were defamatory, and that he was subject to a trial by media. He said that he had never been accused of such things until Busuttil began making allegations.

Schembri’s legal team said they will present a transcript of the whole speech in court and the court ordered him to highlight the parts which he felt were defamatory.


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