The IIP agent engulfed by an alleged trading of influence scandal has come forward to give his side of the story after finally acquiring raw, unedited footage which he says completely exonerates him.
Lovin Malta met with the managing partner of Chetcuti Cauchi Advocates, Jean Phillippe Chetcuti, to discuss the case and look at the full hour-long video clip of his chat with a man he thought was a client but turned out to be a French undercover journalist.
“I’ve kept quiet all this time because I knew eventually I would be able to get the evidence that would exonerate me from any wrongdoing in this case,” Chetcuti said.
Last September, French TV show Enquête Exclusive aired a documentary into Malta which included a sting operation into Chetcuti Cauchi Advocates by a journalist posing as a legal representative of African clients interested in purchasing Maltese citizenship. In the interview, Chetcuti could be heard talking about how and former Prime Minister Joseph Muscat are old school friends, how Minister Owen Bonnici used to conduct work for his firm, and how Julia Farrugia Portelli, back then the parliamentary secretary responsible for citizenship, is a childhood friend of his wife.
At one point, Chetcuti could be heard saying that the authorities could “close an eye” and that he could provide them with further information that would benefit the client.
As a result, the law firm’s license to sell Maltese citizenship to investors was suspended.
However, raw, unedited footage now raises serious questions about how the situation may have been manipulated by Enquête Exclusive.
The full footage is yet to be published, with Chetcuti waiting to submit it to the magisterial inquiry after filing a court application recently.
Chetcuti dismissed any claims that he peddled in trading in influence, with the video showing the French journalist was the one prompting Chetcuti Cauchi to talk about his relationship with ministers.
“What was I going to say? I don’t know [Joseph Muscat] at all when that would be a complete lie? It’s the truth; we knew each other when we were children. If I really wanted to trade in influence, I would have said I currently meet him during weekends, which is totally not the case,” Chetcuti Cauchi said.
He insisted his reference to former Julia Farrugia Portelli (now heading the Tourism Ministry) was simply a joke.
“You have to understand, I just said that I knew the Prime Minister when we were children. You know, it’s surreal that in Malta we all know each other somehow and how common it is to find these links. It was ridiculous that we were also connected somehow.”
And when it came to Owen Bonnici, now Education Minister, Chetcuti was quick to clarify:
“Owen Bonnici was never a partner in the firm. We had outsourced litigation to him before he had even entered politics. That’s how I know him.”
Regardless, he said, the video clearly showed him dismissing suggestions that these sort of links would have any bearing on their application.
“The relationship you have with authorities is something the African clients may, you know…” the journalist asks in the video.
“I’m always very careful to explain to people like that, look it doesn’t mean that I can get something done if it’s not possible. Because in any case, they want peace on mind. They don’t want to buy something, and later on, it’s taken away. They want something forever,” Chetcuti replies.
“So that’s the way I operate. So we do it the right way, if there is a concern, address that concern. And if it’s not doable, we can be honest and say, look I can’t help here,” he adds.
A mistranslation and a wink
Asked to explain his “wink here and there” comment, Chetcuti said it was simply taken out of context, and also mistranslated.
“The translation said that I can get ministers to close an eye to criminal records. What I said is that I discuss client files with clients to find out why they were rejected. “
“I suggest to the Agency (NOT Ministers) possible bad press resulting from our due diligence, and from their body language I assess whether I’m on the right track. That helps me provide information explaining/justifying the bad press if that supports a possible reconsideration of the rejection,” Chetcuti said.
In the unedited video he says:
“There are limited cases where we are able to fight for a reconsideration, but the odds are against you. With a first-level rejection, there is no guarantee, there is no appeals mechanism. In fact, for me, it’s just lobbying. You know, I keep on friendly terms. I don’t tell the minister you’ve done a bad job or you’ve made a mistake.”
“I say, look, with some more information we can have a fuller picture and sometimes… because they can’t tell me what the reason is…they can wink when I suggest certain things and therefore it helps me submit information to contradict that.”
Chetcuti explained that the due diligence process for acquiring Maltese citizenship is long and arduous. Ultimately, he said, his interest in his client securing citizenship and does his utmost to ensure they do not receive a rejection for a small flaw in their documentation.
“I am their lawyer at the end of the day, I need to make sure I am submitting a correct document, and I just try to make sure I can get hints from regulators I am doing so.”
“For those who can’t apply because of some flaw in their conduct, we always tell them they will be rejected. The 100% success rate we talk about in the video is for clients who follow our advice.”
“The ones who fail are the ones we tell will get rejected, but they do so anyway,” he explained.
‘I’m their lawyer and it’s my job to help them’
While he admits that he was exploring legal possibilities to get the identity of a successful passport applicant removed, Chetcuti insists that this was in no way done for nefarious purposes.
“Look I’ll be clear, I have clients who are very uncomfortable with having their names on the list. But not for the reason you think. “
“When the name of one of my clients was published, his home country took away assets, government contracts, and employees.”
“And yes, I was going to explore ways through human rights law to help those clients who are in very extreme cases. I’m their lawyer, it’s my job to help them how I can,” Chetcuti says.
Chetcuti is pursuing the case in the French courts, which recently gave him access to the raw, unedited footage.
“It will exonerate me. But the damage has already been done to my firm,” he says.
“Why was my voice muted? Why was I dubbed, poorly, in French? Why was I mistranslated? We were all victims of this, not just my firm. I’ve looked at it from all angles, and I still don’t understand what these journalists were trying to do.”
The only question that remains is why the regulator and agency acted swiftly to suspend licence on the strength of newspaper headlines, without acquiring the footage.
A curious issue was the firm’s use of Castille in an advert promoting the scheme. Chetcuti explained:
“The choice of Castille was purely a coincidence. I had pointed out that my own office wouldn’t be appropriate if the Parl Sec is in the video too, then the courtyard of Castille was suggested. But on the day of the filming, we found scaffolding and we were given a boardroom,” he said.