Pierre Portelli interviewed Maria Efimova last year
The Nationalist Party’s head of media Pierre Portelli has defended his role in the Egrant saga, arguing that he never gave credence to a crucial document that fell into his possession.
“I never published this document or even said in public that I believed it to true,” Portelli – back then editor in chief of The Malta Independent told Lovin Malta. “When I received this document, I did what any responsible person in the world would have done and handed it over to the inquiring magistrate. I actually handed in this document after the general election, so Labour’s spin about this being a political move makes no sense at all.”
In his inquiry findings, which were published last week, magistrate Aaron Bugeja confirmed that Pierre Portelli was the only person who was able to produce an alleged declaration of trust showing Egrant belonged to the Prime Minister’s wife Michelle Muscat.
Joseph Muscat broke into tears after the Egrant inquiry cleared his wife and him
The magistrate asked both late journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia and her informer – former Pilatus Bank employee Maria Efimova – for a copy of this document, but both claimed to have seen it from the other.
When Caruana Galizia broke the story that Egrant belongs to Michelle Muscat, she said that documents showing this to be true have been scanned and uploaded onto the cloud. Although Caruana Galizia didn’t specify whether Efimova herself had uploaded the documents onto the cloud, she did confirm in a later blogpost that the former Pilatus Bank employee was her main source for “most of this website’s reports about the activities of that bank and its clients, including the documents related to Egrant Inc and Michelle Muscat”.
Two days after Efimova first testified to Aaron Bugeja, she gave an interview to Pierre Portelli with her face blurred out and her name hidden so as to protect her identity. The interview has since been deleted from The Malta Independent’s website after Pilatus Bank threatened the newspaper with a hefty lawsuit in the United States, but it is still available on Vimeo.
In the interview, Portelli repeatedly asks Efimova to confirm whether she has copies of the documents in possession but she refuses to straight-out confirm or deny this.
This is a transcript of the interview:
Portelli : You have scanned copies of the documents which you have put onto the cloud
Efimova: Yes, but on this I cannot comment.
Portelli: Daphne Caruana Galizia said that you saw this paper with the name Michelle Muscat on it. Do you confirm what Daphne said?
Efimova: The thing is that that the magistrate [Aaron Bugeja] had told me that he is only exempting me from the non-disclosure agreements I had with the bank for the sake of this particular inquiry. He told me I’m not allowed to comment on what I saw and that if I comment and confirm or refuse something then I may be arrested. I have already been arrested before and don’t want to go through this experience again.
(Later on in the interview)
Portelli: I think the Maltese people now need to be reassured that whatever you are saying, as we read in Daphne’s blog, is backed up by evidence. You do have the copies, right? That’s what we read in the blog…
Efimova: The thing is that the magistrate forbade me to comment in public. I have already told the magistrate what I have and what I saw, and now it’s up to him to complete the inquiry.
Portelli: Yes, and we understand that you also showed him the evidence. I will not ask you what you said in the inquiry. However, we understand that for the magistrate to be able to work on what you told him you had to show him the things that you say you have, that we read in the papers that you have…
Efimova: I told him everything I knew about the case. The inquiry was three hours long and I was asked in detail and I told and….er… everything I knew. Probably he has something to work on now.
Portelli: Exactly, because you have the scanned copies which you put on the cloud. This is what we read on the papers…
Efimova: Yes, but on this I cannot comment.
(Later on in the interview)
Portelli: : Daphne said you saw the paper with the name Michelle Muscat on it. Do you confirm it?
Efimova: The thing is that the magistrate told me that I’m not allowed to comment on what I saw
Portelli: But this already came out…
Efimova: Yes, but he told me that if I comment and confirm or refuse something then I may be arrested. I was already arrested once, and don’t want to go through this experience again.
Portelli: You saw movements from Leyla Aliyeva’s account to Egrant…this is what you told [Daphne]
Efimova: I saw movements from her account to other accounts, but again for the inquiry purposes, I cannot declare to which company…
Portelli: I understand that, but you must keep in mind that what Im asking you has already come out in the media….
Efimova: Yes, but the magistrate has bound me not to say anything. He said I’ll be arrested otherwise and I don’t want to have this problem.
Portelli: I don’t want to ask what you said inside the inquiry because I understand the magistrate precluded you from doing so. The only thing we need to know is whether it is true that you took copies of the documents that you had seen. Just tell me if it’s true or not true because this is a question all Maltese people are asking. Everyone is saying that the whistleblower is just talking about what she saw but doesn’t have any verification. Just tell us if its true – do you have copies?
Efimova: I can say that copies exist. That’s all I can say so as not to put myself in trouble with the police and magistrate. I can say that the copies mentioned by Daphne Caruana Galizia exist, but that’s all I can say.
Pierre Portelli’s intervention comes at 52:08
Then on 1st June, two days before the general election, Portelli confirmed on Xtra he had seen the documents with his own eyes but chose not publish them so as to protect Efimova.
“I am the only one amongst you who has also seen the documents that the whistleblower had showed the magistrate,” Portelli told the other journalists on the panel. “Take it as a scoop if you want, but I couldn’t publish these documents because the Russian embassy had warned the whistleblower that it wouldn’t help her if she ignores the magistrate’s advice.”
Although he strongly indicated that his source was Efimova, he didn’t straight out confirm this. Indeed, a few months later Portelli confirmed to Lovin Malta that his source was neither Efimova, Caruana Galizia nor former police officer and FIAU official Jonathan Ferris.
After Portelli’s declaration on live TV, Bugeja summoned him to testify.
“I told Bugeja that a source had shown me the documents and he demanded I reveal my source, citing national security laws,” Portelli told Lovin Malta. “I refused to do so, but I told him I would ask my source for a copy of the declaration of trust. My source complied and I returned to Bugeja with this copy.”
Questioned whether his decision not to publish a copy of the declaration of trust in The Malta Independent reflected his personal uncertainty of the veracity of the documents, Portelli said he thought it was more important for the magistrate to investigate it personally.
Maria Efimova interviewed by Euronews during a whistleblower conference. Photo: Euronews
Then last week, Bugeja confirmed that this was the only copy of the document that ended up in his possession and that it turned out to be a false one, including a forged signature by a certain Jacqueline Alexander – a nominee director used by Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca to front thousands of offshore companies.
According to Portelli’s testimony, Efimova had promised to give him a copy of the declarations of trust after she managed to access her iCloud account through a VPN so as to mask her identity and location. However, these documents were never forthcoming, leaving Portelli’s source a crucial missing part of the puzzle.
Asked by Lovin Malta whether he has spoken to this source after the inquiry findings were published, Portelli kept his lips sealed – arguing he has received legal advice not to comment so long as the police are investigating the forged document.
“I haven’t been contacted by the police in this regard yet, but I think they should be left to do their job,” he said.