Farrugia would check with Mizzi and Schembri before releasing government statements

Sarah Cassar Dymond

Tista' taqra bil- Malti.

Former OPM head of communications Kurt Farrugia testified on Friday morning during the public inquiry into the murder of investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia.

Farrugia who was worked very closely to then prime minister Joseph Muscat was appointed as Malta Enterprise CEO last year.

In Brief

  • Kurt Farrugia says that he had a ‘good’ relationship with journalists;
  • He told the board of inquiry that looking back he would have done things differently in relation to the 2014 visit to Azerbaijan when a government delegation did not invite any of the local media;
  • On government press statements relating to the Panama Papers, Farrugia says that he would verify the claims with former Minister Konrad Mizzi and former OPM Chief of Staff Keith Schembri and draft a statement based on the information they provide and the government position;
  • The government used a foreign PR firm, Chelgate, in 2018 with Farrugia meeting some of its representatives when they were occasionally in Malta;
  • Corinne Vella tells the board that Farrugia had blocked Daphne Caruana Galizia’s number.

During the last sitting, investigative journalist Victor Paul Borg testified during the public inquiry. His testimony was cut short after some 30 minutes, as his request for it to continue behind closed doors was turned down by the board of inquiry. Instead, the inquiry asked him to submit an affidavit, promising confidentiality.

Lawyers Jason Azzopardi and Peter Caruana Galizia are appearing for the family.

The inquiry board is led by retired judge Michael Mallia, assisted by retired Chief Justice Joseph Said Pullicino and Judge Abigail Lofaro.

The next sitting will be held on Wednesday at 9.15am.

12:43 Thank you for following this live blog.
Monique Agius
12:43 Dr Azzopardi asks the board to start at 9.15am on Wednesday.

The board upholds the request.
Monique Agius
12:41 On Wednesday, Foreign Affairs Minister Evarist Bartolo will testify.

On Friday, MEP David Casa and a journalist will testify.
Monique Agius
12:41 Vella steps off the stand.
Monique Agius
12:39 Vella refers to PR 115/17 on the police website rebutting a story in Nazzjoni which said that Mizzi and Schembri were going to be charged after the Panama Papers broke has now been removed, she says.
Monique Agius
12:36 "The whole murder was treated as a PR problem for the government," Vella says.

Glen Bedingfield and Neville Gafa and a newspaper which is supposed to be independent had led a coordinated attack aimed at making her look like a PN agent, Vella says, recalling that she has been photographed greeting Simon Busuttil in Valletta.
Monique Agius
12:34 Vella says a doctored copy of a private document which was only available to the LIBE committee had made its way to the government. Vella notes that the government decided to rebut that document point by point and provided a doctored document.
Monique Agius
12:33 Government would not take Caruana Galizia's questions on Pilatus Bank, corruption, etc.

Madame Justice Lofaro notes that Farrugia needs to be recalled to testify.
Monique Agius
12:29 Caruana Galizia had been made the reason for the early election, says her sister.

Vella says that Farrugia had blocked Daphne Caruana Galizia's number. Vella also mentions this blog post: https://daphnecaruanagalizia.com/2017/04/governments-head-communications-woke-6-56am-today/
Monique Agius
12:27 She explains that the recording is Caruana Galizia is speaking to an interviewer as part of a research project where she would not be named. It was for the Council of Europe about the safety of journalists.

Caruana Galizia had said that "she had been turned into a national scapegoat and this has been gone on for the last 30 years".

A transcript of the recording will be provided to the board.

The interview was about threats. It was about two weeks before her assassination.
Monique Agius
12:25 Vella plays a recording of Daphne Caruana Galizia, as Farrugia, Lia and Gouder leave the courtroom.
Monique Agius
12:24 Corinne Vella takes the witness stand.
Monique Agius
12:21 Chief Justice Emeritus Said Pullicino observes that lack of information and certain events aroused suspicions.

Farrugia says that in hindsight had they done it differently it would have been better.
Monique Agius
12:20 "I don't know anything about Tonna having a desk at OPM," Farrugia says.
Monique Agius
12:19 Asked if he had ever seen Brian Tonna after 2017 at OPM?

"I don't remember. I didn't know him well… he was there for an audit which his firm was conducting," Farrugia says.
Monique Agius
12:17 Azzopardi asks whether he intends of going back to the OPM and whether he still receives a salary

Lia objects loudly saying that this is all soundbites. The board says that the question is not admissible. Farrugia replies "I don't see why I have to reply to these questions".

Farrugia was also asked if he was involved in fish farming companies, to which he replied 'no'.
Monique Agius
12:15 Farrugia is now asked about PR firm Chelgate and Sandstone.

He says that he did not know about Sandstone involvement. The EU observer had written an article about misinformation relating to the murder.

"I had never been informed of this. I don't even remember exactly what story this was," Farrugia says.
Monique Agius
12:14 Dr Azzopardi: Do you remember filing a police report by you and Ramona Attard leading to the arrest of Norman Vella over the alleged taking of photos at the airport?

Farrugia: No, I never made the request. We got to know after landing and we had laughed about it.
Monique Agius
12:10 The witness says he was present for every meeting before the election in 2013 till his resignation. He says Muscat would meet regularly with media personalities.

"There were some journalists who were tough with us, so we were tough with them," he says. ['huma kienu iebsin u ahna konna iebsin maghhom']
Monique Agius
12:09 Farrugia confirms that he knew that Konrad Mizzi had engaged a foreign firm to reply to the ICIJ.
Monique Agius
12:05 Dr Azzopardi had Muscat told you why he did not ask them to step down?

Dr Lia interjects. He screams that the lawyers appearing for the family cannot make questions. He complains that the questions are 'political and partisans'.

Farrugia replies but it is inaudible.
Monique Agius
12:01 At the time, Farrugia says, there was pressure from some cabinet members for Schembri and Mizzi to step down.
Monique Agius
11:59 Farrugia says that he had heard people telling them to resign.

"When finally Mizzi was stripped off his portfolio as Energy Ministry it was very hard to close certain projects. Schembri would coordinate certain work," Farrugia recalls.
Monique Agius
11:56 Several people in the government had called for the resignation of Mizzi, Farrugia confirms.

Farrugia says that he was of the opinion that people in such a position could not be embroiled in such controversies as their position became untenable. He says that he had told them as much then.
Monique Agius
11:55 Dr Azzopardi: On such a bomb… a money laundering machine involving the top brass from government… was it a short meeting? Didn't you call in the prime minister to discuss it with you and Schembri?

Farrugia: I would collect the replies and draft the response. He might have been called in. But I don't recall exactly.
Monique Agius
11:52 Dr Azzopardi: Was Schembri surprised upon getting to know that 17 Black belonged to Yorgen Fenech while replying to the questions?

Farrugia: Can't really say. We were replying to the questions.

Dr Azzopardi: Did you speak to Muscat about the matter?

Farrugia: He referred me to Schembri.
Monique Agius
11:50 Dr Azzopardi asks the witness about 17 Black.

Farrugia says that he had specifically spoken to Keith Schembri about 17 Black when he had received questions from Reuters and Times of Malta. He found the answers he was given as "unsatisfactory".

Farrugia recalls Schembri acting surprised at the amount of detail in the questions.
Monique Agius
11:47 Dr Azzopardi asks whether he had confronted Schembri about the opening of offshore companies in secretive jurisdictions and the negative impact it had on the government and the country.

Farrugia says 'yes'.

Dr Azzopardi: Do you think he was upfront? Do you think he was being honest?

Farrugia: At the time, I think yes.

Dr Azzopardi: Do you still think the same now?

Farrugia: I don't want to talk about what if, but new information has emerged that I didn't know. The same applies for Konrad Mizzi.
Monique Agius
11:45 Dr Azzopardi suggests that Farrugia had instructions not to answer questions from Caruana Galizia on certain subjects. The witness denies it.
Monique Agius
11:43 Dr Azzopardi asks whether the DOI had released a statement before the trip informing that Muscat would be away in Azerbaijan.

Farrugia replies in the negative.

Dr Azzopardi says that the public in Malta got to know about the trip from the Azeri media, with Farrugia replying that he had written up a statement.
Monique Agius
11:41 Dr Azzopardi: Don't you find it strange that no media was present in Azerbaijan in 2014?

Farrugia: We had discussed it and we thought that there was no need to have the media. In hindsight, we have learnt. The suspicions surrounding this visit is all smoke in the air.
Monique Agius
11:39 In April 2015, Farrugia and Muscat went to Azerbaijan together, alone.

Muscat had met with the president of Azerbaijan. Muscat had to speak at a conference organised by a think-tank / NGO.

TVM and DOI were invited but had gotten stuck in France because of a problem with connecting flights.
Monique Agius
11:38 Farrugia says that the media was not informed because there was going to be a public announcement and which could be done by the Head of Communications.
Monique Agius
11:37 Dr Azzopardi: When is the first time that you went to Azerbaijan with the government?

Farrugia: December 2014.

Dr Azzopardi: Who was there?

Farrugia: Joseph Muscat, Chief of Staff, Konrad Mizzi and myself.
Monique Agius
11:33 Farrugia says that he would sometimes answer and other times no to Caruana Galizia's questions after the Panama Papers.

The witness does not recall exactly.

Dr Azzopardi formally requests the witness to bring the communications had with her at a later sitting.
Monique Agius
11:30 Dr Azzopardi asks about the press conference where the government offered €1 million reward for information on the murder. This was shortly after 16 October 2017. How many times after that do you recall the government reminding the public of this reward?

"This reward was mentioned several times, even in international publications," Farrugia says.

Azzopardi asks the witness to forward the various instances where the offer was made. He argues that the reward was never mentioned again, not even in parliament.
Monique Agius
11:28 The OPM briefing happened some 24 hours before the arrests on Monday.

Dr Azzopardi: Do you confirm that either you or the PM that two particular arrests had happened?

Farrugia: Hmm. I got to know from the media.

Dr Azzopardi: No, no we got to know from you before the media.
Monique Agius
11:27 Dr Azzopardi has just presented the court with the link to the Economist story.

Farrugia explains that he would have three to five requests a week for an interview with the prime minister.

"At the time it was my judgement that he wasn't a journalist for the Economist," Farrugia says.
Monique Agius
11:22 Farrugia is now speaking about the registry of newspaper editors and accreditation under the new Press Act. He says that Caruana Galizia was both a citizen journalist and a journalist in the traditional sense.

Farrugia says that he would regularly communicate with then Times of Malta journalist Caroline Muscat even if she was critical of the government.

Invites to government's press coverage are sent out by the Department of Information.

He says that in seven years they had not stopped anyone from attending from a press conference.
Monique Agius
11:17 The journalist had written for the Economist. The article can be seen here: https://www.economist.com/1843/2018/09/11/murder-in-malta.

After protesting, Farrugia remembers Clapp saying that he thought that Clapp was a freelance journalist who once wrote for the economist. He adds that the language used by Clapp was not of a journalist from the Economist. Then he mentions some foreign news outlets he dealt with in the past, saying that they never used such language.
Monique Agius
11:06 Dr Azzopardi refers to the NAO report on the power station project. He asks whether he still insists on not having seen Gasan, Fenech and Apap Bologna at the PL HQ.

Farrugia replies in the affirmative.

PEN International had accused Farrugia of distorting its open letter in which it slammed the outrageous behaviour of V18 chairman Jason Micallef. Azzopardi asks on whose orders was the letter distorted.

Farrugia says that "it is their opinion that it was distorted. It is what they are saying."

Dr Lia peers over Dr Azzopardi's shoulder to see where he was reading from.

After Muscat's interview with BBC's John Sweeney, Lovin Malta CEO Chris Peregin had written an imaginary interview with Muscat. 'What instructions were given to refuse interviews?'

Farrugia explains that when requests came in, they would assess the request.

Dr Azzopardi asks whether they told foreign journalists to refrain from asking about the investigation.

He refers to a time when a journalist sent him an email from a Gmail account claiming to be from the Economist, Alexander Clapp. Farrugia says that he had seen it strange, adding that he had spoken to his contact the Economist and asked whether he worked for them. The answer was negative.

Farrugia says that he had written back to say that they could meet but the journalist could not ask about certain issues as there would be a magisterial inquiry underway.

Dr Azzopardi said that he would bring evidence contradicting this after the witness finished testifying.

Farrugia and Lia object.

Farrugia says that he has a right to know what the evidence is.

Lia says "what essentially Dr Azzopardi is saying that he would bring evidence that would show that Farrugia is lying." [Biex iggidbu]
Monique Agius
11:04 He asks about the time pre-2013 election.

Azzopardi: Had you seen Mark Gasan, Peter Apap Bologna or Yorgen Fenech on the fourth floor before January 2013?

Farrugia: No.
Monique Agius
11:04 Dr Azzopardi takes over the questioning.
Monique Agius
11:03 Farrugia is asked whether they were aware of someone following a journalist, he says "absolutely not."

"I always saw that our relationships with foreign and local press were good, even when the situation were difficult," he says.
Monique Agius
11:01 Farrugia explains that the security at Castille was in the hands of the Armed Forces of Malta. He does not recall that there was anyone else in charge of the security. He says that employees would clock in and some would have access cards.
Monique Agius
10:55 'You were a very close ally to Muscat. You even went with him to Azerbaijan,' Chief Justice Emeritus Said Pullicino notes.

Farrugia says that he always did so as a government official.

Mr Justice Said Pullicino asks if Caruana Galizia's blog was an open source.

Dr Lia was seen shaking his head no, while Farrugia replied "no" saying that she was incorrect.

"Many times she was incorrect," Farrugia says.

"I'm sorry, also because I lived through the Egrant saga. I know that the information was not correct," he says.

"I was convinced that they were baseless allegations on Joseph Muscat and Michelle Muscat," Farrugia says.
Monique Agius
10:52 Farrugia says that he is not aware of any decision for further investigation into Konrad Mizzi after he was stripped off his portfolio.

"I don't recall that the extent of those allegations had emerged by then," Farrugia says.

Knowing Mizzi's intention to contest the deputy leadership, Farrugia had told him to refrain from contesting if there was something amiss.
Monique Agius
10:49 There were two proposals on how to generate electricity at a cheaper price. Farrugia recalls that one project involved using olive stones to generate energy.
Monique Agius
10:47 The board points out that the offshore companies were set up three days after the 2013 election.

"The first time that I heard an inference about something not being right was when Caruana Galizia had posted a cryptic image of a Panama hat and a New Zealand lamb," Farrugia sasy.

When Farrugia confronted Mizzi about his mention in the Running Commentary, he had replied that it was "bluff".
Monique Agius
10:43 Farrugia says that his role was to deliver the government's message through PR and marketing. He says that it annoys him because everything he saw was done in good faith.

"I don't recall listening in a meeting where personal interests were being discussed," he says.

"Are you referring to 17 Black?" Madame Justice Lofaro asks.

The negative elements were made behind his back, suggests the panel.
Monique Agius
10:37 Farrugia expresses pride at what the government had achieved in various sectors. He says that government's work had been tarnished.

Mr Justice Said Pullicino refers to Muscat's "stones in his shoes", observing that the public does not know what this means.

Farrugia asks for more specific questions.

Said Pullicino says that it has transpired throughout the inquiry that employees until a certain level were honest hard working individuals and had been "betrayed".
Monique Agius
10:35 Chief Justice Emeritus Said Pullicino takes up the questioning.

Farrugia is asked about the fourth floor of the PL HQ. He replies that this was used for electoral planning.

"It was a taboo or anathema for PL to have some kind of relationship with the business world and it was one of the points that we had addressed in 2008. We wanted to bridge our policies on talks with constituted bodies and representatives of unions and industry to form policies," he says.
Monique Agius
10:30 Asked about a Swiss news portal republik.ch, Farrugia says that he had spoken to a journalist whose name he could not remember.

He says that they had given them a document.

The board of inquiry asks whether it had missing paragraphs.

Farrugia says that the document was prepared by them.

Madame Justice Lofaro says there is a suspicion that they had held back information about Pilatus Bank.

Farrugia says that he did not have information that he did not pass on.

The journalist from the Swiss outlet would sometimes tag Farrugia on Twitter and he had replied to him on occasion.
Monique Agius
10:28 Mr Justice Emeritus Michael Mallia asks about Chelgate.

Farrugia says that he has heard about the foreign company. He adds that there were some interactions with the company. They interacted with the company in 2018.

The company is a PR company, with whom Farrugia would communicate to draft the government's message especially when dealing with foreign media.

The witness says that he had communicated with Robert Winstanley. He adds that Winstanley had come to Malta on occasion.
Monique Agius
10:24 Mr Justice Mallia asks about the OPM briefing.

Farrugia was called in for a meeting which turned out to be one OPM briefing on the murder concerning the action the police were intending to take against some suspects.

For that OPM briefing, Farrugia says that the brigadier, Keith Schembri, Joseph Muscat, the Police Commissioner, and Keith Arnaud, were present for sure.

Farrugia says that Muscat had addressed those present asking to divulge details on a need to know basis without mentioning any names of suspect.
Monique Agius
10:22 Farrugia says that he had demanded explanations from Mizzi and Schembri about their Panama companies. He says that they would claim that the information was not true.

He says that the statements released at the time of the government, he would draft them after having spoken to them. He adds that the statement would reflect the government's position.

Asked about 17 Black, he says that he had asked them about 17 Black. Schembri and Mizzi had denied any connection to the Dubai based company, Farrugia says, adding that he had stopped there.
Monique Agius
10:18 Farrugia says that he had no idea that Schembri and Yorgen Fenech were so close. He says that Schembri's job was to meet people from different social background at Castille.

"Kienu qishom ahwa," Madame Justice Lofaro observes.

"I didn't know they were like brothers," he says.

He only found out about their friendship from the media during the arrests. He adds that by the time he was no longer at OPM.

Farrugia had seen Fenech twice. Once for an event for the power station where he was among the members of the public and once at Castille possibly for a meeting with Schembri.
Monique Agius
10:17 Farrugia had sometimes gone to Muscat with stories from the PL media outlets. These were stopped because they were too personal, Farrugia recalls.

"We had one Opposition MP who was in court with family problems. We would never publish any stories about this," he says.

"Bedingfield had been a journalist, but he had political aspirations. I worked with him for many years," he says.
Monique Agius
10:15 Asked about Glen Beddingfield's blog, he says that he was involved and worked in the same office as Bedingfield.

"Sometimes I agreed with his style sometimes I didn't… we had discussions about his style," he says. Farrugia says that he had suggested that he "tones it down" but stresses that this was a suggestion as a friend rather than an order.
Monique Agius
10:13 The board of inquiry asks about wrong information in the media about possible motives for Caruana Galizia's murder, amongst them oil. Farrugia says that they had no sources but it was generally journalists that would approach him for information.
Monique Agius
10:11 Farrugia says he got to know Konrad Mizzi in 2010 when Muscat summoned him into his office. Muscat had introduced Mizzi as someone who was not living in Malta and as being of of the candidates for the general election. Muscat had asked Farrugia to give him coverage.

Farrugia says that the cost of electricity was already an issue. Mizzi had taken an interest in the sector. According to Farrugia, Mizzi took it upon himself to speak about energy.
Monique Agius
10:10 "I didn't even know who Yorgen Fenech was at the time. I knew the Tumas Group but never had any interaction with him," he says.

Farrugia adds that he saw Fenech at public occasions and these were very occasionally.
Monique Agius
10:07 He says that meanwhile journalists were calling him for confirmation of what happened, adding that he told them to come to Castille for a press conference. "I didn't confirm what happened to them," he says.

Farrugia was not with Schembri or Muscact at the time.

Farrugia says that he did not really know Schembri at the time, but he knew he was a friend of Muscat, when asked about the board about his relationship with Schembri. He says that he got to know through work in 2013 with the election.
Monique Agius
10:05 Farrugia says that he had called up the Police Commissioner. The Commissioner had not answered his call immediately and returned it later informing him that probably the bomb was planted under Caruana Galizia's car.

"I felt as if the world collapsed on me," he says.

Farrugia says that Muscat had then called the Opposition Leader. He recalls Muscat writing down what he would say after asking for a press conference before the police commissioner had not even confirmed that it was Caruana Galizia.
Monique Agius
10:04 Farrugia says that they were almost in Valletta when then prime minister Joseph Muscat received a message about a bomb somewhere near Most. He recalls Muscat saying that his wife used that road to take the children to school. Farrugia says that the PM had told him to call the Brigadier and inform him.
Monique Agius
10:01 Questions turn on the murder now.

Farrugia recalls that on the day, it was the Opposition Leader's reply in parliament on the budget.

They had an event with foreign companies in Sliema for which Economy Minister was present with the delegation but not Keith Schembri, Farrugia says.

"Keith Schembri was not with us at Sliema. I assume he was in Castille," he recalls.

The former head of communications recalls that Caruana Galizia had reduced her focus on the PL at the time and focused on the PN leadership race.
Monique Agius
09:54 Farrugia's office was on the first floor and then moved to the third but he never had an office on the second floor.

He says that he never had copies of the FIAU and would read them off the media. "They were in everybody's hands but mine."
Monique Agius
09:51 The board of inquiry asks Farrugia whether he had spoken to Nexia BT – Brian Tonna and Karl Cini about the Panama Papers, with Madam Justice Abigail Lofaro asks about their office at OPM.

"I didn't feel it was my remit to speak to people part of structures not part of government. It certainly wasn't my role to investigate," he says.

"They definitely didn't have an office at Castille," he adds.

Farrugia says that he had seen Tonna at Castille. He explains that if he recalled correctly, in the beginning Tonna and Cini were doing some audits. "They didn't have a specific office," he says.
Monique Agius
09:50 Asked whether they had an independent source for information on Panama Papers, Farrugia says that he would speak directly to Mizzi and Schembri and rely on what they say.

"Kont inmur f'ras il-ghajn," he says.
Monique Agius
09:50 Lawyer Charles Mercieca from Yorgen Fenech's legal team enters the courtroom.
Monique Agius
09:49 He says that he had an assistant, Matthew Carbone.

Farrugia says that he would draft the press statements after speaking to those involved.

Mr Justice Mallia: Had you ever spoken to PM Muscat about the Panama Papers?

Farrugia: Yes I had.
Monique Agius
09:46 Mr Justice Mallia asks Farrugia what was his reaction to the Panama Papers and whether they spoke after the reveal.

He had not spoken to her about the Panama Papers.

"I don't believe she had ever asked about the Panama Papers," he says.

Farrugia says that when the Panama Papers were revealed, he monitored to the newspapers to be able to issue a reaction.

He had spoken to both then minister Konrad Mizzi and Schembri and formulated a reaction.

Mr Justice Mallia asks him what their reaction was.

"I don't remember exactly but they had said that there were incorrect assertions," Farrugia says.
Monique Agius
09:45 Farrugia says that he saw her as someone who would work in gossip.

Over time she became more aggressive and there were a number of stories which started to be picked up by other media, he says. He is referring to the time after the Panama Papers reveal.
Monique Agius
09:42 "I have a good relationship with all journalists… she accused me of all manner things, even very personal things intended to hurt me. She would call me short, fat, stupid, all sorts," he recalls.
Monique Agius
09:38 Judge Michael Mallia asked him how he would react to the criticism of Caruana Galizia.

"Her work didn't start in 2013 but long before. Her pen was very critical of the Partit Laburista… at that time I was a journalist at maltastar.com which was a PL online portal. She was critical of journalists who either worked for the PL media or independent journalists who sympathized with the PL," he says.

He says that he did not have much interactions with Caruana Galizia. His few interactions were "very courteous" he says. Except shortly after 2008 elections, when he was a Maltastar.com journalist. He recalls a debate at university where she was present.

"We had made a story about her presence. She had been part of the crowd there. They were making jokes about wigs. There was a small incident between Caruana Galizia's son and a ONE cameraman, " he recalls.
Monique Agius
09:37 He had five direct staff members some would write statements, reporting, and coordinating. Others worked in research and marketing. The staff complement increased over the years, he says.
Monique Agius
09:36 Farrugia explains his role as head of government communications.

'There was a political structure aside from the civil service one, that I was answerable to,' he says.
Monique Agius
09:35 Before 2013, Farrugia was director of communications of the Partit Laburista. The witness explains that then he was appointed as Head of Government Communications as a person of trust. It was a yearly contract renewable every year, he explains.
Monique Agius
09:34 Kurt Farrugia is summoned to the stand. He takes the oath.
Monique Agius
09:31 The board of inquiry has just entered the courtroom.
Monique Agius
09:28 Lawyer Jason Azzopardi has just entered the courtroom.
Monique Agius
09:19 We're live from Hall 20. Today's witness Kurt Farrugia is already in the courtroom along with his lawyers Pawlu Lia and Charlon Gouder.
Monique Agius
09:19 Good morning and welcome to this live blog.
Monique Agius