By now, practically the whole country must have heard about the Egrant inquiry – a 15-month long investigation which found no basis to Daphne Caruana Galizia’s allegations that the Prime Minister’s wife owned a secret Panama company.
Not only did magistrate Aaron Bugeja seemingly vindicate Joseph Muscat, but his inquiry gave weight to suspicions that the entire story was fabricated by Muscat’s opponents so as to topple the Labour government.
Yet several critical questions remain unanswered and they must be addressed if the public is ever to acquire a full picture of the saga.
1. Who is criminal action suggested against?
Former Pilatus Bank employee Maria Efimova
The inquiry recommends an unknown number of people for further criminal investigation. The Malta Independent has reported Maria Efimova will be charged for perjury and slander, while MaltaToday has reported former Opposition leader Simon Busuttil and former Malta Independent editor Pierre Portelli are unlikely to face charges.
Will Efimova bear the brunt of this story? If so, will Greece, where Efimova is now residing, even agree to extradite her to Malta given that it had earlier rejected a European Arrest Warrant for her extradition, reportedly on the grounds that she wasn’t guaranteed a fair trial here?
It is also not know whether the magistrate recommends further investigation into other players, such as Pilatus Bank, Nexia BT and Keith Schembri.
2. What happened to the claim that this was the work of the Kremlin?
During last year’s election campaign, Muscat dropped a bombshell by confirming he had received intelligence from foreign security services that the hidden hand of the Kremlin could have been behind the Egrant story.
“We were informed by security services of allied nations that this story was invented after Malta refused to refuel a Russian warship en route to Syria,” the Prime Minister had said. “We were also informed that the Maltese EU Presidency’s attitude in speeding up discussions on a visa waiver programme with Ukraine had frustrated some people and could lead to some retribution.”
The Prime Minister was reacting to a report by an intelligence specialist news website, which said the MI6 and the CIA had flagged Maria Efimova’s role in the Egrant story as a potential attempt by the Kremlin to meddle in the Maltese election.
However, there has not been a single update on whether this claim was followed up on since then, and it is unknown at this stage whether magistrate Bugeja even looked into the claim.
3. Who was Egrant intended for?
An internal email confirms how much Egrant had cost Nexia BT
The inquiry confirmed that, while Nexia BT had acquired several BVI companies from Mossack Fonseca, it had only ever acquired three Panama companies from it- namely Egrant, Hearnville and Tillgate.
While the three companies were bought in a batch, Egrant clearly took on a different trajectory than Hearnville and Tillgate, which belonged to Tourism Minister Konrad Mizzi and OPM chief of staff Keith Schembri respectively. Nexia BT set up trusts for Hearnville and Tillgate and repeatedly tried and failed to open up bank accounts for them, but didn’t do the same for Egrant.
Leaked internal emails confirm it had cost Nexia BT $2,000 a year to conceal Egrant’s ownership through nominee shareholders. Indeed, Nexia BT had racked up a $10,000 bill for Egrant’s nominee services as of 2017.
Would Nexia BT agree to pay so much money to conceal the ownership of a company that, according to its CEO Brian Tonna, was always a shelf company (a company with no activity) that he himself had owned? And if so, why?
4. Did Nexia BT destroy evidence?
The famous ‘Skype’ email did not specifically refer to Egrant
According to the inquiry’s conclusions, the forensic team contracted by magistrate Bugeja was unable to glean any digital evidence from Nexia BT’s servers which detailed its intentions for the acquisition of Egrant.
Correspondence between Nexia BT and Mossack Fonseca appears to start on 14th March 2013, five days after the general election. Back then, Nexia BT partner Karl Cini declared his interest to acquire a single Panama company and possibly a trust.
Later on that month, Cini emailed Mossack Fonseca again to confirm Nexia BT will send over the requested information for the setup of a (singular) Panama company and a trust.
“The UBO [ultimate beneficial owner] will not be Nexia BT,” Cini wrote. “It will be an individual and I will speak to Luis [reference to Mossack Fonseca’s lawyer Luis Quiel] on Skype to give him more details”.
Although several people, including Daphne Caruana Galizia and Simon Busuttil, had alleged that Cini was referring to Egrant here, there is no proof that this was the case.
Nexia BT ended up buying three Panama companies but the magisterial inquiry could not find any email correspondence indicating its change of heart.
“Our forensic accountants could not find any email from Nexia BT or Karl Cini which requested the establishment of three Panama companies, apart from the final purchase orders in July and August 2013 which were signed off by Brian Tonna,” Bugeja writes. “It is therefore not possible to prove, at the level required by law, any link between the emails of March 2013 and the subsequent incorporation of the three companies.”
So what happened? Did Nexia BT destroy crucial email evidence or was all such communication carried out via telephone or Skype and therefore leave no digital trace to begin with?
5. What about Egrant’s missing shareholder register?
Lovin Malta has long been trying to get its hands on Egrant’s share register at the date of dissolution, which should contain the company’s entire shareholding history and prove whether Brian Tonna really had owned the company all along.
Before the election, Tonna confirmed he had asked Mossack Fonseca for a copy of this share register as at the date of Egrant’s dissolution in April 2017 and promised to publish the document afterwards.
However, Tonna then changed his mind, saying he had passed on Egrant’s share register, along with other documents, to Bugeja and will await the inquiry’s outcome before commenting further.
Did Tonna end up passing the share register to Bugeja as promised or did he change his mind again? No reference is made in the inquiry’s conclusions?
6. Did Pilatus Bank have the ability to tamper with its own data?
The inquiry confirmed that Pilatus Bank made use of the Oracle Flexcube banking software and that experts on this software attested to the “integrity” of Pilatus’ software and the data on its core banking system.
However, in early 2017, Oracle discovered a weakness in its software which basically allowed people with access to the server to permanently delete accounts and transactions without a trace.
Soon after, Oracle released a patch that addressed this glitch, but the inquiry’s conclusions don’t specify whether or not Pilatus Bank had installed this patch.
Questions sent by Lovin Malta to the Attorney General on this potentially crucial piece of the puzzle remain unanswered a week later.
7. If this was a frame-up, then who orchestrated it?
Muscat has said the inquiry proves the Egrant story was a frame-up, but the published conclusions don’t straight-out say this was the case.
Bugeja remarks that Caruana Galizia may have been too eager to believe what Efimova told her and that Efimova had an axe to grind against both Pilatus Bank and the Maltese authorities – the former for firing her and the latter for allegedly mistreating her when the bank sued her for fraud.
The strongest hint of a frame-up comes from the magistrate’s conclusions that an alleged declaration of trust which was handed to him by Pierre Portelli was a forgery.
However, Portelli had been summoned by Bugeja in the first place after he confirmed on a TV debate that he had seen these documents on the iPad of a person, who Portelli later insisted was neither Efimova nor Caruana Galizia.
Portelli only obtained a physical copy of this document after Bugeja requested him to do so, which was actually shortly after the general election.
If Portelli’s source knew this was a forged document, then why would he have handed it to him, to be investigated by Bugeja, after the election, when Muscat’s landslide victory destroyed the plans of the supposed frame-up?
8. What about 17 Black?
Keith Schembri (left) and Konrad Mizzi (right)
Bugeja was stonewalled when he requested information from the United Arab Emirates, in connection with Egrant’s alleged Dubai bank account which Caruana Galizia claimed it had used to receive funds from Azerbaijan’s ruling family.
This lack of transparency by the UAE authorities is crucial, because leaked emails show that eventual bank accounts for Mizzi’s and Schembri’s Panama companies were supposed to receive funds from a mysterious Dubai company called 17 Black.
Schembri’s and Mizzi’s responses to the leaked email sharply contradicted each other. While Schembri confirmed he set up his Panama company for business purposes and 17 Black was included as a potential client in a draft business plan, Mizzi insisted he only set up his company for family planning. However, Mizzi has yet to take action against Nexia BT for misrepresentation, several months after the email was leaked. Muscat, Schembri and Mizzi alike have repeatedly dodged questions from the press about this mysterious company.
9. When will the inquiry be published?
Muscat has said he intends to publish as much of the inquiry as possible, while blotting out the parts that expose sensitive personal information and anything that could jeopardise further police investigations.
The full inquiry includes transcripts between the magistrate and key witnesses, including the Muscats, Schembri, Mizzi, Tonna, Cini, Caruana Galizia, Efimova and Portelli. Given the politically explosive nature of this inquiry, it is important that as much of it is published as possible so the public can analyse how Bugeja reached his conclusions.
It’s already been two weeks since the inquiry’s conclusions were published. How much longer does the public have to wait for the full thing? Why hasn’t the media been given an advanced and embargoed copy?