The Malta Independent 15 April 2021, Thursday

Fenech lawyers wanted 'campaign' of stories 'to undermine credibility of Melvin Theuma', court hears

Albert Galea Monday, 8 February 2021, 11:18 Last update: about 3 months ago

Yorgen Fenech’s lawyers Gianluca Caruana Curran and Charles Mercieca wanted a press campaign that would “lead up to undermining the credibility of Melvin Theuma as a witness", Times of Malta journalist Ivan Martin testified in court on Monday.

Martin was testifying in a police case against Caruana Curran and Mercieca after they allegedly offered him several €500 notes after a meeting about their client Yorgen Fenech.

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Fenech currently stands charged with masterminding the murder of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia.  Melvin Theuma was the middleman in the act and has been granted a presidential pardon to tell all about the case.

Martin rejected the money and immediately reported the matter to his editors, after which a police investigation was launched.

Both Caruana Curran and Mercieca pleaded not guilty to the charges before them.

The defence was led by Caruana Curran’s mother Gianella De Marco with Stephen Tonna Lowell.  Superintendent James Grech and Inspector Anthony Scerri prosecuted.

Magistrate Nathalie Galea Sciberras heard the case.

Testifying in court, Inspecter Anthony Scerri from the police’s financial and economic crimes unit said that they had spoken to Martin, to his editors Diana Cacciottolo and Herman Grech and to Caruana Curran and Mercieca as part of their investigations.

Investigations began after the Times of Malta published a story stating that Yorgen Fenech’s lawyers had offered cash to one of their journalists.  The story carried Martin’s recollection of what had happened and a reply sent to them by Caruana Curran.

The police inspector said that they had spoken to Caruana Curran who had answered all questions and admitted that he had offered one 500 euro note, but had done so with no bad intentions.  He said that the meeting was at Mercieca's office and that he had gone mid-way through the meeting and simply offered the money to Martin because he felt that he "deserved to be compensated." 

Mercieca, when spoken to by the police, categorically denied that he or Caruana Curran had tried to bribe the journalist, and that even though he did not trust Martin, he had accepted to meet him. He too said that Caruana Curran joined mid-way through the meeting, and that the lawyer had reached for his pouch but that Martin had rejected the offer.

Inspector Scerri said that Mercieca had contradicted himself by saying that he did not know that Caruana Curran was going to offer the money, but at the same time then telling police the reason why Caruana Curran had offered the money.

"So just to confirm, in the moment that Dr. Caruana Curran made the offer, Dr. Mercieca made it clear that he did not know anything", Tonna Lowell asked on that remark.

"Yes, but he said other things", the Inspector replied.

Taking the stand, Martin said that he had first contacted Mercieca in May 2020 when he heard that Mercieca was leaving the AG's office to join Yorgen Fenech's defence team.  He said that they had later exchanged some messages over filings for Mercieca's client. 

He testified that in summer they had bumped into each other and agreed to meet over a coffee.  He said that they met twice wherein they spoke about Mercieca offering him tips or leads for potential stories.  In a meeting, he said that Mercieca had provided him with some tips and leads which he found interesting and possible to transform into stories. 

He said that there was one particular piece of information which interested him greatly and he had set about to try and confirm the said information.  He continues that he had managed to confirm some details but was still "shaky" about others.  He said that he had sent a very early draft to Mercieca of the story, but that he had some questions about some things - but eventually they held off on publishing the said story and the matter ended there.

Martin continued that he went to Mercieca's office at his request on November 2, with Caruana Curran present as well.  He said that during the meeting they discussed the draft that he had written which they had liked.  He said that the two lawyers had suggested a "campaign" of stories.  "They would lead up to undermining the credibility of Melvin Theuma as a witness", Martin said.

He said that he had heard them out, but that they do not write campaigns or this type of stories.  Caruana Curran, he said, had expressed reservations about how the media was handling his client.

At the conclusion of the meeting, Martin said that Caruana Curran sifted through some notes in a pouch and offered him some notes.

Martin testified: "Caruana Curran told me: ‘These are for you’ - I didn't associate them with money immediately because it wasn't the colour of money to me - I had never seen a 500eu note before.  I thought he was giving me a post-it note or something like that. I took them, quickly realised they were money, and handed them back to Caruana Curran and told him you can't pay me. I was a bit unnerved because this was the first time that someone had given me money like that.  I told him you can't do that you can't pay me - I cracked a joke saying that the Times of Malta only could pay me even if they don't pay me enough."

Caruana Curran's reaction, Martin continues, was that he was sorry and that he had never dealt with a journalist before and that "time costs money".  He said he wasn't rude about the matter as he wanted to maintain a relationship with them.

It was after that point that he called his superiors about the incident.

Testifying, Times of Malta news editor Diana Cacciottolo said that Martin had told her of the meeting with Mercieca - a normal situation for a journalist - after which she had received a phone call from him who told her that "something strange had happened and that he thought I should be aware."

Martin explained the incident to her, and she advised Times of Malta editor in chief Herman Grech of it.

"We were concerned because it seemed like the defence lawyer in such an important case had offered money in order to receive help with their client, which as a newspaper we find unacceptable", she said.

She said that she had called Caruana Curran and introduced herself to him and asked to speak about the meeting which had taken place with Martin.  She said that Caruana Curran had told her that he was busy and that he would return her call.  The call, she said, was never returned and then she messaged him over Whatsapp to ask for an explanation about the money offer, stating that it was "completely unacceptable" and that "Times of Malta does not accept money for coverage."

She said that they - the Times' editorial staff - had decided that this was a matter of public interest, and had asked for a reply - which Caruana Curran sent at 9pm and which appeared in the story, which was published the day after the meeting.

It was revealed from Whatsapp chats that Cacciottolo had given a deadline of 8pm for Caruana Curran to send replies as they wanted to include the story in the newspaper of the following day.  This was focused on by the defence, who lamented that the witness had pressured Caruana Curran into sending a reply in a short time.

The article was only published online the following afternoon, Tonna Lowell observed.

"The replies made very serious allegations against Ivan and we needed to speak to him before publishing the story", Cacciottolo replied.

"So Ivan deserved time to answer but Gianluca didn't is what you are saying", Tonna Lowell retorted, referring to the tight deadline given to the lawyer.

Cacciottolo said that they would have gone ahead with the story even if they had not received a reply from the lawyer, as the issue was a serious one.

Times of Malta editor in chief Herman Grech testified that he had immediately recognised the severity of the incident and called Ivan into the office.  He said that he asked Martin to compile a written statement and instructed Cacciottolo to get side of the lawyers as well.

He said that police asked him about what common practice is for journalists when it comes to meeting people and receiving money.  He said that he told police that it is normal for journalists to meet people, even lawyers, to get all sides of a story, but that they cannot get external remuneration unless expressly approved from the company - which was certainly not the case here.

 

The case will continue on 17 February.


Follow proceedings live below:

13:19: That's it for today - thank you for following.

13:18: There aren't any more witnesses today.  The next sitting will take place on 17 February at 12pm where the police will continue to bring witnesses and when the Magistrate will rule on the defence's request for disclosure of Martin's statements to police.  Martin will be summoned for cross-examination at a later date.

13:17: Matthew Naudi, the Times of Malta's head of HR, testifies next.  He is asked about the terms and conditions that Ivan Martin has with the company.  He states that Martin is engaged full-time with the newspaper as a journalist.  He presents Martin's first employment contract to the courts. The defence reserve their cross-examination and Naudi departs.

13:14: Joseph Saliba, a representative from Jobsplus, takes the stand next.  He presents papers to confirm that Martin is employed with the Times of Malta and has been since 8 April 2013. He says that Martin was listed as a 'Trainee Reporter' at the time - a role which was never changed.  He steps off the stand.

13:12: Tonna Lowell cross-examines Grech.  He asks about the email Martin said and a part which was blanked out - which Grech says he blanked out because it names certain sources. Tonna Lowell reserves his cross-examination and Grech departs the witness stand.

13:10: He said that police asked him about what common practice is for journalists when it comes to meeting people and receiving money.  He says that he told police that it is normal for journalists to meet people, even lawyers, to get all sides of the story, but that they cannot get external remuneration unless expressly approved from the company - which was certainly not the case here.

13:08: Grech recounts what Martin told him: that the meeting was to discuss stories with the lawyers, but neglects to provide details due to the fact that some sources may be named, and that Martin was offered money after the meeting.

"The crux [of the meeting] is that the lawyers wanted more favourable PR for their client from Ivan Martin", the Magistrate asks.  Grech replies in the affirmative.

13:06: Grech recounts how after the meeting, Martin had called Cacciottolo to explain the incident, and Cacciottolo had then called him to explain the incident.  Grech said that he had called Martin into the office - most of the Times staff was teleworking at the time - and asked him to draft an email detailing what had happened.

13:04: Cacciottolo steps off the stand and Times of Malta Editor in Chief Herman Grech takes the stand instead.

13:03: The prosecution asks what would have happened had the lawyer not replied, to which Cacciottolo replies that given the seriousness of the matter, they would have had to publish what their reporter (Ivan Martin) told them.  

13:02: Tonna Lowell comes back to the deadline matter, and asks whether the story was published at 14:28: "The replies made very serious allegations against Ivan and we needed to speak to him before publishing the story", Cacciottolo replies.

"So Ivan deserved time to answer but Gianluca didn't is what you are saying", Tonna Lowell retorts, referring to the tight deadline given to the lawyer. 

12:59: De Marco asks about replies to Caruana Curran's right of reply which appeared in the first story.  Cacciottolo states that they - she, Times of Malta online editor Bertrand Borg, and Hermann Grech - had gotten replies from Martin in this regard.  The article, she says, makes a distinction between Martin's statement's and the Times' editor's statements.

12:57: De Marco is focusing very much on this deadline given - asking Cacciottolo to confirm whether she had pressured Caruana Curran to stick to the deadline, even if the latter had said he would provide the reply by 8:30pm to 9pm. Cacciottolo states that she had asked for the lawyer to stick to the deadline.

12:55: She said that she had initially wanted to speak to him to state that it was unacceptable to offer money to one of their journalists - she is cut short and asked why the deadline for the reply was for 8pm.  Cacciottolo said that she wanted to run the story in the newspaper, hence the deadline, but when the reply did not come they had chosen to not run it in the newspaper in favour of publishing the story with Caruana Curran's reply.

12:53: De Marco begins her cross-examination of the witness.  She asks whether she had Cacciottolo had Caruana Curran's phone number - which Cacciottolo replies that she did not.  She said that she had called him in the afternoon but that Caruana Curran had answered at 4:57pm, when the lawyer told her that he was busy at the time.  De Marco reads off a screenshot of the Whatsapp message stating that this was at 5:19pm and that she had given a deadline of 8pm for the reply.

12:46: She recounts that the incident happened on 2 November, the first story was published on 3 November, and the second statement was received and published on 4 November.

12:45: Some days later, she said, all newsrooms received a second right of reply which was slightly altered from the first reply that they had received. 

12:44: She said that they - the Times' editorial staff - had decided that this was a matter of public interest, and had asked for a reply - which Caruana Curran sent at 9pm and which appeared in the story, which was published the day after the meeting. 

12:43: She continues by saying that he had called Caruana Curran and introduced herself to him and asked to speak about the meeting which had taken place with Martin.  She said that Caruana Curran had told her that he was busy and that he would return her call.  The call, she said, was never returned and then she messaged him over Whatsapp to ask for an explanation about the money offer, stating that it was "completely unacceptable" and that "Times of Malta does not accept money for coverage."

12:42: "We were concerned because it seemed like the defence lawyer in such an important case had offered money in order to receive help with their client, which as a newspaper we find unacceptable", she says.

12:39: The prosecution makes reference to the article about the incident written by the newspaper and asks for context to it.  She replies that as news editor she has to be aware of where her journalists had to be at all times.  She says that Martin had told her of the meeting with Mercieca - a normal situation for a journalist - after which she had received a phone call from Martin who said that "something strange had happened and that he thought I should be aware."

12:37: Times of Malta news editor Diana Cacciottolo now takes the stand.

12:33: Martin steps off the stand.  The defence reserves its cross-examination till after it has received disclosure of what the journalist told police.

12:32: Martin is asked about his communications with Mercieca.  He says that they had started when Mercieca had left the AG's office, with Martin opening communications with the lawyer over that story through Whatsapp.  From then, there had been communication over some court filings concerning Yorgen Fenech.  Martin says that he had never communicated with Caruana Curran and that the meeting where the money was offered was the first time that he had met the lawyer in a meeting.   

12:30: Caruana Curran's reaction, Martin continues, was that he was sorry and that he had never dealt with a journalist before and that "time costs money".  He said he wasn't rude about the matter as he wanted to maintain a relationship with them.  After leaving, he said that he felt it would be better to call his superiors about the matter and spoke to Cacciotolo and then Herman Grech.  

12:29: Martin testifies: "These are for you - I didn't associate them with money immediately because it wasn't the colour of money to me - I had never seen a 500eu note before.  I took them, quickly realised they were money, and handed them back to Caruana Curran and told him you can't pay me. I was a bit unnerved because this was the first time that someone had given me money like that.  I told him you can't do that you can't pay me - I cracked a joke saying that the Times of Malta only could pay me even if they don't pay me enough."

12:27: He said that he had heard them out, but that they do not write campaigns or this type of stories.  Caruana Curran, he said, had expressed reservations about how the media was handling his client.

12:24: Martin continues that he went to Mercieca's office at his request on November 2, with Caruana Curran present as well.  The defence asks Martin to testify and not read off his papers - Martin says he was simply referring to his notes, and puts the notes into his pocket before continuing.  He continues that during the meeting they discussed the draft that he had written which they had liked.  He said that the two lawyers had suggested a "campaign" of stories.  "They would lead up to undermining the credibility of Melvin Theuma as a witness", Martin said.

12:20: Martin, testifying in English, speaks about the article published by the Times and gives some context.  He said that he had first contacted Mercieca in May 2020 when he heard that Mercieca was leaving the AG's office to join Yorgen Fenech's defence team.  He said that they had exchanged some messages over filings for Mercieca's client.  He testifies that in summer they had bumped into each other and agreed to meet over a coffee.  He said that they met twice wherein they spoke about Mercieca offering him tips or leads for potential stories.  In a meeting, he said that Mercieca had provided him with some tips and leads which he found interesting and possible to transform into stories.  He said that there was one particular piece of information which interested him greatly and he had set about to try and confirm the said information.  He continues that he had managed to confirm some details but was still "shaky" about others.  He said that he had sent a very early draft to Mercieca of the story, but that he had some questions about some things - but eventually they held off on publishing the said story and the matter ended there. 

12:12: Times of Malta journalist Ivan Martin now takes the stand.

12:09: The defence suspends its cross-examination for now, while the prosecution rises to ask further questions to the witness.  Scerri states that the right of reply was actually sent by Mercieca not Caruana Curran, though its content was agreed between them.  The second right of reply, he said, had the input of another lawyer by the name of Jordash - the inspector doesn't remember his surname.

12:07: "So just to confirm, in the moment that Dr. Caruana Curran made the offer, Dr. Mercieca made it clear that he did not know anything", Tonna Lowell asks.

"Yes, but he said other things", the Inspector replies.

12:06: Tonna Lowell asks about Scerri's statement that Merceica had said two contradictory things, to which he replies that Mercieca had said that he did not know that Caruana Curran was going to offer the money, but at the same time told police the reason as to why Caruana Curran had offered the money.

12:04: Tonna Lowell asks whether they spoke to anyone else on the case besides Martin, Cacciotolo, Grech, Caruana Curran, and Mercieca.  Scerri replies that they had spoken to some experts needed for the technical side of the investigation as well.  He also confirms that they had spoken to the witnesses - including Martin - once, during investigations.

12:03: Tonna Lowell asks whether a representative of the Attorney General was present in the department at the time - who Scerri states that this person was Dr. Philip Galea Farrugia - and whether police had consulted with him, which he confirms.  Scerri states that it was the Attorney General who decided to proceed with the case and issue charges against the two lawyers.

12:02: Cross-examination begins.  Tonna Lowell asks whether police had opened an investigation on their own volition or at the request of another party.  Scerri replies that the former was the case.  Tonna Lowell asks about the disclosure that the police had not provided the defence on the basis that it contained what was written in the article.  

11:57: Mercieca, when spoken to by the police, categorically denied that he or Caruana Curran had tried to bribe the journalist, and that even though he did not trust Martin, he had accepted to meet him. He too said that Caruana Curran joined mid-way through the meeting, and that the lawyer had reached for his pouch but that Martin had rejected the offer.

11:54: The police inspector continues, saying that they had spoken to Caruana Curran who had answered all questions and admitted that he had offered one 500 euro note, but had done so with no bad intentions.  He said that the meeting was at Mercieca's office and that he had gone mid-way through the meeting and simply offered the money to Martin because he felt that he "deserved to be compensated."  

11:53: Scerri states that police spoke to both Times of Malta news editor Diana Cacciotolo as Martin's direct superior, who said that she had communicated with Caruana Curran to get an explanation for the incident, and Times of Malta editor-in-chief Herman Grech.  

11:52: Martin was then spoken to by himself and police inspector James Grech, where he confirmed what was written in the article. Martin told police that he had first met Mercieca in 2020 over a separate story, and said that he had met Mercieca and Caruana Curran in November at the latter's offices in Valletta for a meeting at the end of which he was offered between 2 and 5 500 euro notes, which he rejected and gave back.

11:51: Scerri states that police investigations began after Times of Malta published their first article on the incident, stating that this may have constituted corruption in the public interest. He cites the first right of reply in the story, and then another right of reply sent by Charles Mercieca to all newsrooms, and states that it was confirmed that money was offered to Martin.

11:46: The testimonies begin.  Inspector Anthony Scerri from the police's economic crimes unit is the first to take the stand. 

11:44: The defence are asking for full disclosure of Martin's statements to the police, which they say have not been granted to them.  The court rules that they should be granted disclosure before Martin's cross-examination. 

11:38: Both Caruana Curran and Mercieca plead not guilty to the charges brought before them. 

11:33: We are going through some procedural matters, with the defence - led by Stephen Tonna Lowell and Gianella De Marco - stating that they wish to summon Times of Malta journalists Jacob Borg and Edwina Brincat in due course.  By law given that, both Borg and Brincant cannot be present in the courtroom, however the defence are seeking an exemption to this as they state that they do not wish to block any journalists from covering the proceedings.  This is granted and verbalised by the courts.

11:26: The magistrate is in the courtroom, and we are set to get underway.

11:25: BACKGROUND: Fenech's legal team had claimed that the journalist led it to believe he was offering to help "neutralise the bias in the reporting in the media." It said it was not privy to his terms of employment with Times of Malta and the journalist only mentioned that he works full-time at the newspaper after he was offered remuneration for his "services."

Martin has been a journalist with the Times of Malta since 2013, and Times of Malta editor in chief had said in reaction to the Fenech defence team’s arguments that at no point in his conversation did Martin indicate he was an investigator, and that Caruana Curran himself said in his initial reaction to the incident that he had never dealt with journalists – hence implying that he knew that Martin was a journalist himself.

11:24:  Good morning all - we are currently in courtroom 2, awaiting proceedings against Yorgen Fenech's lawyers - Gianluca Caruana Curran and Charles Mercieca - to begin.  The duo are in court after getting themselves into hot water when they allegedly offered several 500 notes to Times of Malta journalist Ivan Martin - who is also here in court today.

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