The Malta Independent 26 May 2024, Sunday
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Updated: Judge rejects PN request to exhibit entire Vitals inquiry in case to recoup money

Wednesday, 15 May 2024, 11:54 Last update: about 11 days ago

A judge has rejected the PN’s request to exhibit the entire magisterial inquiry into the fraudulent sale of three public hospitals, in the party’s case seeking the return of the public funds spent on it.

Mr. Justice Toni Abela handed down his decree this morning following a brief, but lively, sitting in the civil case filed by the PN which is seeking to recover some €400 million, paid out by the taxpayer as part of the ill-fated hospitals deal with Vitals Global Healthcare, later taken over by Steward Healthcare, which was subsequently declared null by a court on the grounds of fraud.

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Making their arguments before the decree was issued, it was evident that the State Advocate and the Prime Minister held diametrically-opposed positions as to whether the court should provide the opposition PN party with a full copy of evidence exhibited in the Vitals inquiry or not.

The court incredulously read out a note filed by the PN, which cited a story published by One News which quoted one of Joseph Muscat’s lawyers, Charlon Gouder, as stating that Muscat had been granted access to the inquiry documents and that the same would be granted to everyone else earmarked for prosecution by the inquiry. Lawyer Julian Farrugia, representing the Office of the State Advocate, informed the court that the Office was objecting to the request.

It was only the Criminal Court which could decide to grant the PN access to the inquiry, said the judge, adding that “besides the acts that were illicitly published in the media, the court has no knowledge of them.” 

Judge Abela warned about the publication of leaks from the inquiry, noting that before recent amendments to the law, the acts of criminal proceedings could not be seen by anyone, bar the parties involved. Those amendments now gave the AG discretion to allow access to others.

“The court understands that both the rights of the prosecution and those of the defendants must be protected,” said the judge, also pointing out that the plaintiffs had made this request when it should have been made by the AG.

The court said it could not see how the request was relevant to this case. 

Having seen the various applications and the replies, the judge observed that the case was aimed at getting the court to summon the registrar of Criminal Court to exhibit attachment orders and other documents from the criminal proceedings.

He also noted that the Prime Minister had not objected but that the State Advocate disagreed.

“The acts are being published in the media. This is not right and will lead to injustice, especially when they end up in the hands of people who have obscure agendas,” said the judge, who expressed disbelief at the fact that the person behind the leaks had not yet been identified “when the circle of people with access to it is small.”

Earlier in court

Before the decree was handed down, lawyer Edward Debono, assisting former opposition leader Adrian Delia, insisted on the court handing down a decree on the request. “The issue is simple. The case we filed is that the State Advocate must litigate against those people in the highest functions of the Maltese government who acted with criminal intent in collusion with Vitals. The State Advocate’s reply was that his office doesn’t have that function.”

“Thanks to the International arbitration proceedings, today we know that Steward Healthcare is bankrupt. These government officials have been identified, not only thanks to attachment orders, not only in the charges that were issued, but now, too because the Court of Magistrates in its criminal jurisdiction, has decreed that every person charged is to be given a copy of the inquiry.

“So now the State Advocate cannot use the excuse that he doesn’t know what the inquiry contains. He is not the government’s lawyer, he is duty-bound to defend the interests of the State, which is different. So our position is that we also require a copy to prepare our case,” Debono explained.

Farrugia counter-argued that when the plaintiffs had declared their evidence to be closed, they had been unequivocal in stating that they had no further evidence to exhibit, adding that “the evidence they are trying to exhibit is completely irrelevant to this case, because this case is simply about what the Office of the State Advocate can do in terms of the Constitution and the law, and nothing more.”

“After the exhibition of the 78 boxes of evidence that were reported in the media, is this court going to be in a better position to know what the law says?” asked Farrugia, insisting that his role was not to enter into the political discussions, but to ensure that the law is obeyed.

Farrugia accused the PN of filing this case in a bid to get around that law.

The lawyer added that he did not have a copy of the inquiry and did not know what it contained. “What I know is this. When an inquiry is concluded, it is transmitted directly to the Attorney General. Under the Criminal Code, access to the inquiry, until that inquiry is exhibited as evidence in criminal proceedings, it is the Attorney General who is the custodian of that inquiry and only the AG can determine who to grant access and give copies to.”

The judge asked Farrugia to confirm what he had just said, on oath, warning him to be careful about what he was going to say. But Farrugia obliged without hesitation. “The office and the State Advocate do not have in their possession a complete copy of the inquiry,”  he testified.

“With regards to the Constitutional case that was recently filed by Joseph Muscat in the light of a decree by Mr. Justice Giovanni Grixti, part of the inquiry, had to be transmitted to him and is under seal in the case file before that judge.”

The lawyer said he was led to believe that Muscat is one of the people which the inquiry recommended for prosecution. “Like everyone else, he has a right to the disclosure of the evidence against him.” 

“I’ve been saying the PV should be published for a long time,” Prime Minister Robert Abela, who was also present in the courtroom, told the court.

Using the Prime Minister’s remark as a springboard, cabinet’s lawyer Ian Borg added that the request for the documentation “is not only relevant, but important to show this case is baseless and we have no objection to it being exhibited.”

A brief shouting match erupted between the lawyers on both sides, who bickered about the claim that the Prime Minister had first heard about a recent court application through One news, before the judge brought the parties to order.

Mr. Justice Abela adjourned the sitting to 11:15, announcing that he would be reading out his decree in open court to prevent any misinterpretations.

Mr. Justice Toni Abela announced that he would be handing down a decree on the matter later.

Lawyers Edward DeBono and Nicholas DeBono are representing Grech and Delia. Lawyers James D'Agostino and Julian Farrugia are representing the State Advocate. Lawyers Chris Cilia, Ian Borg and Maurizio Cordina are representing the government and the Cabinet.

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