Edward Zammit Lewis, Malta’s Justice Minister, is under fire over a wealth of intimate exchanges with Yorgen Fenech, the main suspect in the assassination of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia.
It has revealed a shockingly close relationship between one of the nation’s key Cabinet members and a man linked to an assassination and alleged corruption in the country. Still, Zammit Lewis refuses to step aside with Prime Minister Robert Abela burying his head in the sand over the issue.
As a member of Joseph Muscat’s closest allies in government, the underfire minister has been a mainstay of the political scene since the start of 2013, being shuffled around from Cabinet position to Cabinet position while relying on casual elections to get in the house.
But who is Edward Zammit Lewis and what significant roles has he played in consecutive governments that have seen both Prime Ministers support him over the many calls for his immediate resignation?
Zammit Lewis first emerged during Joseph Muscat’s successful electoral campaign in 2013. However, his foray into politics was not much of a surprise.
Both men are longtime friends and had even travelled with each other on occasion. The pair’s relationship goes far back with the pair attending school together.
He was appointed Tourism Minister soon after Muscat’s landslide victory and was tasked with the mammoth challenge of saving the nation’s struggling airline, Air Malta.
Taming the unmanageable proved to be an unassailable task for Zammit Lewis with his plan to establish a memorandum of understanding with Alitalia, which was also struggling financially, going up in smoke after he failed to get any of the required support among the key stakeholders and unions working with the airline.
He did make some headway in terms of tourist arrivals with the number climbing up steadily in his tenure. However, his lack of movement with the airline over a four-year tenure cost him dearly.
During his tenure as Tourism Minister, Zammit Lewis and Muscat made a trip to France to Yorgen Fenech’s hotel, which was partially covered by Fenech, that would haunt them years later
In mid-2017, the then-Tourism Minister failed to get re-elected to parliament at the first attempt and only managed to get a seat through a casual election. This meant that he could no longer be part of Joseph Muscat’s Cabinet, forcing him to the backbench until an opportunity arose.
It is telling that his replacement, the more pragmatic yet controversial Konrad Mizzi, was able, all be it superficially, to turn the tide on the airline by signing staff to new contracts and even recording a profit for one year.
The Shift has claimed that Zammit Lewis was paid tens of thousands of euros in terminal benefits when he was ousted from the Tourism Ministry.
One trip abroad during that period has raised eyebrows. By the end of 2020, Lovin Malta had revealed that Zammit Lewis and Muscat had stayed at Fenech’s luxurious Hilton Hotel in Évian-Les-Bains for free in 2014.
The pair issued vociferous denials, but never actually commented on whether they or Fenech paid for the hotel. Almost a year later, they are yet to provide receipts of their stay, despite promises to do so.
It is believed that this was not the only trip the pair took on Fenech’s dime.
Lovin Malta has continued to press the pair to provide proof of payment. They have both failed to reply to questions sent. They have also failed to clarify whether this was their only visit to this hotel, their only vacation paid by Fenech, or in the company of Fenech.
Luckily for Zammit Lewis, his period out in the cold of Muscat’s Cabinet was softened with lucrative consultancies.
Despite losing his ministerial salary of €54,000, he was given lucrative government contracts by Muscat’s government.
The direct orders included €1,000 a week from Identity Malta and €4,333 a month as a consultant to the Minister for Water and Energy. He was given a €45,000 legal consultancy at the National Development and Social Fund, responsible for the funds generated from the citizenship-by-investment scheme.
He was also made a consultant at the Lands Authority, which at the time was led by former Labour Party CEO James Piscopo. However, his exact income is unclear as no details have ever been provided.
The struggling MP was one of many Labour Party backbenchers who were serving in some agency or giving consultancy to State entities, a practice which continues till today.
In the majority of cases, the government’s backbenchers were raking in more income from the government than serving Cabinet members, including the Prime Minister.
Over this period, the public began seeing the more sycophantic side to Zammit Lewis’ personality, with a post quoting Celine Dion to praise Muscat living long in memory.
The cash-rich backbencher was handed a bone when Helena Dalli left her Cabinet position to take up a role within the European Commission. Muscat, Zammit Lewis’ long time friend, brought him back out from the cold and appointed him as Minister for European Affairs and Equality.
Zammit Lewis was tasked with carrying out reforms kickstarted under Dalli’s tenure. However, he was given little time to find his feet in the role with the country plunging into political crisis just a few months later.
By December 2019, Muscat was ousted from the government following the arrest of Yorgen Fenech and links between the murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia and his office.
Zammit Lewis, who was one of the many Cabinet members consulted on Fenech and others pardon requests (which he still does to this day) without ever declaring his interest, despite having shared hundreds of messages with Fenech over the previous year.
Having survived the political crisis unscathed, he was given a promotion of sorts once Robert Abela was appointed Prime Minister and was chosen to be the Minister for Justice, Equality, and Reforms under the administration.
At no point did the newly-appointed Minister ever make public his relationship with Fenech.
While serving as Justice Minister, Zammit Lewis has spearheaded a number of constitutional reforms including changes to appointment. and removal of the judiciary and other key institutional changes. However, it should be noted that these reforms were recommended by international bodies.
It is his conversations with Fenech that have landed the minister in hot water. In July 2020, Zammit Lewis had claimed there was no relationship between himself and Fenech. By September 2020, it was revealed that Zammit had at least shared hundreds of messages with Fenech throughout 2019.
At the time, the underpressure minister insisted that he cut off contact with Fenech well before the arrest. However, data shows that the last conversation Zammit Lewis had with Fenech was in October 2019, less than a month before police apprehended the murder suspect.
The contents of the conversations have been troubling, to say the least.
In one conversation, Zammit Lewis communicated with Fenech soon after addressing a press conference discrediting attempts for a new inquiry into 17 Black, Fenech’s Dubai-based company linked to alleged government corruption. The press conference happened soon after the reveal that Fenech owned the company.
He even sent him a report of the press conference, asking Fenech if it was “OK”. At the time, Fenech was also applying pressure within the PN to tone down the rhetoric on 17 Black.
In other messages, Zammit Lewis even mocked “stupid Labour voters”, at one point even telling the Tumas Group businessman that “ignorant labour voters” never wanted him.
His infatuation with Fenech is on full display in message exchanges, with the former constantly messaging the latter begging for communication, at several points even telling the murder suspect how much he missed him.
“Speak to me because I’m getting worried…just tell me and I’ll be there…you were in my heart during all of this,” the messages reportedly read.
In one message, the sycophantic cabinet member even asked Fenech if they could have a private meeting with the then-OPM chief of staff Keith Schembri at the ranch.
Zammit Lewis also told Fenech he was “proud to know him” despite the major allegations. Fenech did respond to Zammit Lewis in kind, at one point even offering him hugs when he was reinstated to Cabinet in 2019. However, sources have detailed a wealth of messages where Fenech openly mocks the pandering minister.
Their relationship, it would now appear, even saw Fenech provide jobs to Zammit Lewis’ constituents, something which the minister does not deny. Rather, he has revealed that he often finds jobs for his supporters in both the private and public sector.
Beyond that, Zammit Lewis’ ailing ministry also has other unsavoury links to Fenech. Rosianne Cutajar, the former Parliamentary Secretary for Equality in his ministry, has faced allegations of an intimate relationship with Fenech along with claims that she pocketed thousands in undeclared cash from a Fenech-backed property deal.
The police are tight-lipped on whether or not they have opened up an investigation against Fenech. However, public perception of Zammit Lewis has already taken a major hit.
It is important to remember that the Justice Minister will be tasked with overseeing major reforms forced upon the country following the assassination of a journalist allegedly commissioned by his personal friend.
NGOs, activists, and the PN have all called for his resignation. Still, it appears to have fallen on deaf ears with Prime Minister Abela refusing to take any action.
It would seem that the already unpopular Zammit Lewis’ electoral chances may have taken a major hit. Abela must take action or he will be forced to pay the price for failing to do so.