The Malta Independent 24 September 2020, Thursday

Internal discussion after Panamagate was on Konrad Mizzi, never Keith Schembri - Fearne

Wednesday, 16 September 2020, 09:25 Last update: about 8 days ago

The public inquiry into the assassination of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia resumes today, with Deputy Prime Minister Chris Fearne testifying.

The public inquiry into the murder of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia is tasked with, amongst other things, determining whether the State did all it could to prevent the murder from happening.

In the last session, former Deputy Prime Minister Louis Grech testified that the Panama Papers were 'a great setback' for the government when they came out.

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Caruana Galizia was murdered in a car bomb just outside her Bidnija home on 16 October 2017. Three men, George Degiorgio, Alfred Degiorgio and Vince Muscat, have been charged with carrying out the assassination, while Yorgen Fenech is charged with masterminding the murder.

Melvin Theuma, who acted as a middleman between Fenech and the three killers, was granted a presidential pardon to tell all.

The inquiry is led by retired judge Michael Mallia, and includes former chief justice Joseph Said Pullicino and Judge Abigail Lofaro.

Please refresh for updates:

11:15 That's it for today. Thank you for following. 

11:15 Fearne has finished testifying. He steps off the stand and leaves the courtroom. The next sitting is on Friday with Education Minister Owen Bonnici expected to testify. 

11:12 Fearne: “They had only been brought to my attention recently. As soon as they came into my possession I passed them on to the relevant authorities.”

11:12 Azzopardi: “Are such side letters to be placed under scrutiny?” 

11:11 Fearne replies that he had no idea about the letters. “Often, they made sense... but no, I was not involved.” 

11:11 Daphne Caruana Galizia had published a secret side-letter from Konrad Mizzi on the deal, Azzopardi says. 

11:10 Fearne: “Yes.” 

11:10 Azzopardi: “Basically, when he signed that waiver, Mizzi did not inform you as health minister.” 

11:09 Fearne explains that this waiver only lasted till the end of February this year and negotiations are still underway.

11:09 Fearne: “Part of the obligations imposed on the concessionaire was a bank guarantee of €9 million. Vitals had done this. When the concession changed hands to Steward, I was informed that Steward did not have the guarantee. I had sent for their representatives and told them that it was unacceptable. Around that time, they had presented a letter giving a “parent company guarantee” that was approved by Konrad Mizzi. I had discussed this with Cabinet who opted instead to give Steward a breathing period to come up with this bank guarantee.”

11:03 Azzopardi says that in February this year, MaltaToday’s Matthew Vella reported that Konrad Mizzi had waived €9 million on the hospitals concession deal. The lawyer is reading from the newspaper report. He asks whether Fearne was informed of this.

11:01 There had been a discussion at Cabinet level on the Electrogas government guarantee, he recalls after being asked by Said Pullicino. 

10:59 Fearne says he also became aware that the owner of 17 Black was Yorgen Fenech at the same time as everyone else [November 2018]. “What I remember was that I was surprised and then shocked as he had connections with other people,” he adds. 

10:58 Fearne: “There were rumours swimming around, but believe it or not, I got to know of the date when it was announced.” 

10:57 Lawyer Jason Azzopardi takes over questioning. “When were you aware of the 2017 election date?” 

10:57 Asked about personal attacks on Caruana Galizia, he says: “I was never in favour of personal attacks.” 

10:56 Questioning moves on. Fearne says he never met Yorgen Fenech or Brian Tonna at Castille and didn't even know what Karl Cini looked like. Tonna and Cini are partners in Nexia BT, the financial services firm that helped Mizzi and Schembri open companies in Panama. 

10:55 Fearne: “I am convinced that Daphne Caruana Galizia was murdered to shut her up, why else kill a journalist. It could have been a sign to intimidate other journalists.” 

10:54 He explains that the interview was carried out shortly after the arrest of the three triggermen and that he was hopeful at the time – and still is – that police would also solve other car bombings. In the interview, Fearne had said that freedom of expression in Malta was threatened. 

10:52 Comodini Cachia asks Fearne about a Deutsche Welle interview he gave shortly after the Caruana Galizia murder. 

10:50 Fearne says he didn't have information on what Gafa's role at OPM was. He explains that Gafa had refused to speak to him after the sacking.

10:49 Fearne: “When I was parliamentary secretary, Neville Gafa had an office at the ministry that was there from the time of Godfrey Farrugia. His position was to report to OPM. Every ministry had an OPM coordinator. Soon afterwards Konrad Mizzi had appointed him to FMS and coordinate things there. The day after I was made minister, I was informed by Mizzi's lawyer that Gafa might have been involved in medical visas shortcomings. That same day I had informed the police and his office was sealed. He didn't work for the ministry again.”

10:45 Comodini Cachia asks about Neville Gafa, the former OPM official. “At some time, he was a health ministry employee. Is this true?” 

10:44 Fearne says he had engaged a number of technical persons to ensure that the contract conditions were adhered to. 

10:43 Comodini Cachia: “When Konrad Mizzi ended his tenure as health minister and you took over, had you carried out due diligence on the hospitals concession?” 

10:41 Fearne: “No, but I told my permsec to pass on a copy to the magisterial inquiry. There were two MOUs. One was between the parties which form Vitals and this came to my attention a few months ago. This referred to the time before the concession was granted. Then there was another one in the hands of the NAO.”

10:39 Comodini Cachia: “Did you ask for a copy?” 

10:39 Fearne: “I have not seen this MOU to this day.” 

10:38 Comodini Cachia asks about Vitals. “Did the MOU of 2014 include all the hospitals?” 

10:38 Fearne: “That was a very strange situation as the motion was presented by Marlene Farrugia and the parliamentary group followed the instructions of the Whip who at the time was Godfrey Farrugia [Marlene’s partner].”

10:37 He is answering the panel that points out that he had voted in favour of Mizzi in the parliamentary confidence vote. 

10:36 The 2016 vote of confidence in Konrad Mizzi was not a free vote, Fearne says.

10:35 Fearne says he felt that he could have done a better job [of holding power to account] from the inside. 

10:34 Mallia says that the sense of business as usual, despite the strange money flows and deals, was creating a sense of impunity in the country. 

10:34 Fearne: “I am not saying that there is a failure on government's part. I am waiting for the result of investigations, including this one, and then it should be determined who must resign.” 

10:33 QUICK REMINDER: In November 2018, a Reuters investigation uncovered how Dubai-based 17 Black belonged to Yorgen Fenech and how the company had a bank account at Noor Bank in the UAE. 17 Black had, several months earlier, been revealed to be a target client of Konrad Mizzi’s and Keith Schembri’s Panama companies. 

10:31 Fearne: “The remit to act is of the institutions. Government would see that they are doing a good job... it is not the role of Cabinet to investigate.” 

10:30 Comodini Cachia: “After 17 Black was identified as Yorgen Fenech’, what steps did you take as a Cabinet?” 

10:30 Fearne: “Without defending anyone, at that stage I was not seeing any evidence of the Panama account and its association with those projects. It might or might not be true but I wasn't aware of it.” 

10:28 Comodini Cachia refers to a blog post by Daphne Caruana Galizia in which she raised doubts about the Gozo hospital concession and the Oxley Capital Group.

10:26 Fearne: “Konrad Mizzi was made or chose to step down, but after that he was re-elected. Political responsibility was shouldered.” 

10:25 Therese Comodini Cachia follows up the board's questions. She points out that the point of the board is not to find legal liability but to identify the culture of impunity at the time of Daphne Caruana Galizia’s death. She asks Fearne how political responsibility was shouldered and whether developments simply added to the sense of impunity. 

10:23 Fearne: “I am on record saying that the FIAU, once it has intel on a person, should have the power to act of its own accord.” 

10:22 Said Pullicino says that good people are working on investigations but at a certain level there is a net which leads people to leave or be reassigned. 

10:22 Fearne says he would never be briefed by the FIAU, the police or the Malta Security Services. 

10:21 Fearne: “The relationship with Keith Schembri was frosty after I had said that I was under the impression that he [Schembri] had tried to harm my election chances.” 

10:20 Fearne says there were big discussions in Cabinet on the resignation of the prime minister and ministers. “Resignations did take place,” he says. 

10:18 Fearne: “I don't recall if it was a formal topic in a Cabinet memo but it was definitely being spoken about. The murder was the most shocking event of my political career.” 

10:17 Fearne is asked whether the murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia was discussed in Cabinet. 

10:17 Fearne says that he was opposed to how the role of chief of staff developed over the past 20 years. There was too much concentration of power. “I was of the opinion that the role should be scrapped,” he adds.

10:15 The board notes how despite this Konrad Mizzi remained responsible for the most controversial projects. 

10:15 Fearne says there was a discussion about the Panama Papers in Cabinet. He tells the inquiry that the prime minister had met him and informed him that Konrad Mizzi was not going to remain deputy leader or minister for health. “On Keith Schembri, the PM had said that he had trust in him and he would decide on his fate. The PM had met ministers individually after Panamagate. The discussion was mostly on Konrad Mizzi. Keith Schembri was not up for discussion,” he says. 

10:13 On Konrad Mizzi's huge remit, Fearne says that the reason given by the government was that all the projects were concentrated under the responsibility of one person and that Konrad Mizzi will deliver. The idea was for there to be continuity. “What I can say is that my decisions are made after a discussion with ministers or Cabinet. I never had any direction imposed on me.” 

10:10 Fearne: “I was not part of it and neither did I know it was there and neither did I have the perception of its existence. The first time I knew about it was when Evarist Bartolo testified about it before this inquiry. He [Bartolo] had never expressed any reservations about it before.” 

10:09 Judge Michael Mallia asks him about the infamous ‘kitchen cabinet’. 

10:09 Fearne says that this inquiry would have repercussions on the country for years to come and that he was willing to assist it. 

10:09 Said Pullicino asks the deputy prime minister if he had any statement he wished to make. 

10:07 Fearne says the financial aspect was settled with Projects Malta and then health and energy minister Konrad Mizzi. The Foundation for Medical Services was not involved in the Vitals deal, he adds. 

10:06 The board asks if the financial deal was already set before the agreement was presented to parliament. 

10:04 Fearne: “Cabinet is aware of things when they arrive in front of it. It doesn't generally involve a lot of detail. Cabinet decides the direction, not the details.” 

10:01 Chief justice emeritus Joseph Said Pullicino asks about the lack of accountability to parliament on the project. “Everyone is coming here and saying I found this presentation, it was a done deal... is this the way to do business?” 

10:00 Fearne says that Steward Health Care were a serious organisation. He had gone to visit them with Public Health Superintendent Charmaine Gauci. “I had also visited Harvard Medical School that were involved in the deal but later pulled out.” 

09:59 Fearne says he had not known Ram Tumuluri before the deal, but afterwards had long arguments (battibekki kbar) with him. Fearne says that he met Tumuluri and Mark Pawley [from the Oxley Group] in Castille. “On paper, it looked like they were bringing €200 million, the service would be good and there would be medical tourism. I had a group of people giving me advice on the agreement. There would be problems but we would solve most of them.”

09:55 Fearne explains that after the signing of the concession agreement there was a discussion in the parliamentary group and in parliament. “There was no opposition to it because on paper it looked like a good deal. The opposition voted in favour of it,” he says.

09:54 Fearne says that the choice of the preferred bidder for the hospitals concession was not in his remit. “I only found out about the Memorandum of Understanding recently. There was a PQ about this before the 2017 election... Konrad Mizzi was my minister when I was parliamentary secretary.”

09:51 Fearne explains that when he was a backbencher between February and March in 2014, he was asked to meet Keith Schembri. “He [Schembri] told me to prepare for changes in Cabinet. He asked me whether I would be interested in the role like [former PN health minister] Louis Deguara, whereby I would be a parliamentary secretary but not to be responsible for certain projects in the area. I accepted.”

09:49 Fearne says that after the adjudication, Vitals were selected as the preferred bidder. “The concession was not signed immediately, in that period, I was asked to give a number of KPIs for a part of the concession,” he says.

09:48 He is asked about the Vitals hospitals concession. “I knew there was going to be a project for the hospitals before Vitals were involved,” he says, adding that he was not involved at that stage as a parliamentary secretary. The only thing he had done was attend a presentation by Malta Enterprise at Castille for the Gozo hospital to become a teaching hospital for Barts.

09:46 Fearne explains that the public private partnership with Barts Medical School started when Godfrey Farrugia was health minister. “That project was led by Malta Enterprise. I was not involved at all in the PPP,” he adds. 

09:45 Fearne: “When I was a youth, I was involved in KSU, MMSA and Labour youth movement. Eventually when I graduated as a doctor I did not remain active politically. After the 2008 election I decided to contest the next election. I was elected in 2013. I was a backbencher, after that parliamentary secretary for health and later, health minister.”

09:44 Judge Michael Mallia asks Fearne about his political life before 2013. 

09:44 Deputy Prime Minister Chris Fearne takes the stand. 

09:43 Comodini Cachia says that the PM only has power over the resources used. “If he starts depriving the inquiry of this...” she begins, but is told by the board not to talk of hypothetical situations. 

09:39 Judge Michael Mallia says the inquiry board has received a reply from the Prime Minister. Lawyer Therese Comodini Cachia says that if the PM has nothing to add, “our position remains the same. We don't need his permission to extend the inquiry”. 

 

 

 

 

 


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