Earlier this week, Prime Minister Robert Abela brushed off questions about the infamous company Egrant with a clear-cut statement.
“If you believe in the findings of the magisterial inquiry, the inquiry establishes who owns Egrant, both on paper and as its ultimate beneficial owner,” Abela told L-Erbgħa Fost il-Ġimgħa presenter Mark Laurence Zammit. “It’s Brian Tonna.”
Was the Prime Minister correct? Well, yes and no.
As a refresher, the magisterial inquiry was requested by Abela’s predecessor Joseph Muscat after now-assassinated journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia wrote that declarations of trust hidden at Pilatus Bank showed that the Panama company belonged to his wife Michelle.
It found no evidence that Egrant ever belonged to the Muscats and found that signatures on an alleged declaration of trust that somehow landed in the lap of former Malta Independent editor Pierre Portelli were forged, although it didn’t say who forged them.
Robert Abela’s Egrant explanation is at 9:45 in the above video
Nexia BT partner Brian Tonna told magistrate (now judge) Aaron Bugeja that his company had purchased Egrant, along with two other Panama companies, from now-defunct Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca in July-August 2013 without a specific buyer in mind.
“We bought them as shelf companies [to be ready] for when there’s a demand for those services, which aren’t our core services,” he said. “It’s normal procedure. At this stage, the companies were all under my name, as far as I know – UBO Brian Tonna.”
In 2015, two of these companies were acquired by Muscat’s chief of staff Keith Schembri and then Energy Minister Konrad Mizzi. However, Tonna said he remained the UBO of Egrant throughout. He said that at one point in time, the plan was to sell Egrant to a foreign national, whose identity he forgot, but this never materialised.
When the Panama Papers broke out in 2016, Tonna told Mossack Fonseca to liquidate the company but it was delayed due to communication problems from their end. Egrant was eventually liquidated in 2017.
And that, according to Tonna, was that.
However, magistrate Bugeja’s inquiry also revealed a number of strange points which have yet to be explained.
1. The first known contact between Nexia BT and Mossack Fonseca was made on 14th March, five days after the Labour Party was elected to government, when 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 Panama company and a trust.
The email can be read in full below.
It clearly shows that Nexia BT knew at least one person who wanted to buy a Panama company and didn’t order them all with the blind hope that clients would come knocking.
2. Harbinson Forensics, the experts enlisted by the magistrate, cast doubt on Tonna’s version of events that Nexia BT purchased the three companies without a buyer in mind.
“We can also observe in these emails the process whereby Mossack Fonseca create a constant stream of readily available shelf companies which they can provide at very short notice,” they wrote. “We would question therefore why Karl Cini chose to specifically purchase Egrant on 31 July 2013?”
“It seems to us that he must have had a client in mind when doing this. Why not make an arrangement for Nexia BT to have a number of shelf companies available on request?”
3. The magistrate couldn’t establish how Nexia’s initial plan to buy a single Panama company developed into its acquisition of three companies because the forensic experts he enlisted couldn’t find any emails or documents between the original March 2013 emails and the final purchase orders for the three companies.
In their report, Harbinson Forensics said it appears further communication between Mossack Fonseca and Nexia must therefore have taken place either in person at meetings, by telephone, by Skype or other means.
4. However, they also noted that they couldn’t find a set of emails related to Mizzi’s and Schembri’s companies in Nexia BT’s system.
They had expected to find these emails because they had already been handed in as evidence by former Opposition leader Simon Busuttil.
5. Experts also found evidence that an external memory device, possibly a pen drive, had once been attached to a Nexia BT laptop and contained a subfolder called ‘Egrant’.
However, they couldn’t find this pen drive or discover what evidence the subfolder contained.
6. Meanwhile, the forensic experts raised questions as to why Nexia BT paid Mossack Fonseca thousands of dollars to maintain Egrant through nominee shareholders if it was just a shelf company all along.
“It is interesting that Nexia BT felt it worth paying fees of US $1,295.10 per year to maintain Egrant, an apparently dormant shelf company, on the off chance that some client might in future want an overseas company when such a company could apparently be speedily acquired from MossFon at a fee of US$1,365.84,” Harbinson wrote.
7. Stranger than that, forensic experts noted that Nexia BT had received another order for a Panama company in December 2015. However, instead of selling Egrant to their client, Nexia BT purchased a fourth company from Mossack Fonseca.
“We can see no logic as to why Egrant Inc was not assigned to [the client] at this time instead of going through the process of acquiring another new Panama company and then continuing to pay annual fees to maintain Egrant,” they wrote.
8. Cini and Tonna were also found to have created false documents, which would purport to come from Mossack Fonseca, to support the claim that Tonna was Egrant’s UBO.
“It is clear that these documents were in fact created by Karl Cini and Brian Torma with no input from MossFon,” the experts wrote. “It is a matter for you to decide whether there has been any wrongdoing in this and whether the fact that Nexia BT felt the need to create documents in this way has any significance for your inquiry.”
In their conclusions, both the forensic experts and magistrate Bugeja could find no evidence revealing that Egrant’s UBO was anyone other than Brian Tonna.
However, that does not mean, as Robert Abela is trying to portray, that they established as a matter of fact that Tonna was indeed the company’s only UBO. It certainly doesn’t mean that Tonna acquired Egrant for himself and there are serious doubts as to whether he purchased it without a specific buyer in mind.
The fact that Nexia BT acquired a fourth Panama company from Mossack Fonseca when a client came knocking, rather than just sell him Egrant from the shelf, is indicative, particularly seeing as it cost Nexia BT thousands of dollars to maintain Egrant.
Some pretty huge gaps exist in the sequence of events, and the Prime Minister stating on national TV that Egrant belonged to Brian Tonna all along will not put the matter to rest.
Do you think we’ll ever discover the truth behind Egrant?