Minister Abela says he was satisfied with Mizzi’s explanation on Panama company

Miguela Xuereb

Tista' taqra bil- Malti.

Minister Carmelo Abela told the board of inquiry that he was satisfied with the explanation then minister Konrad Mizzi gave to his fellow MPs following the Panama Papers reveal. Abela testified during the public inquiry into the murder of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia.

Minister Abela had told then prime minister Joseph Muscat that Konrad Mizzi and Keith Schembri should clear their names before continuing with their duties. He recalled being satisfied with the explanation and had proceeded to vote in favour of Konrad Mizzi when a vote of confidence was taken in parliament in May 2016.

In brief:

  • Minister Abela said that he met Keith Schembri only after the 2013 election and not before
  • Abela who also headed the Home Affairs Ministry, said that the police were left to act as they deemed fit following the allegations made in public.
  • Abela had told Muscat that Mizzi and Schembri had to clear their name before continuing with their duties
  • The Minister was dumbfounded when he first heard about Caruana Galizia’s assassination
  • Abela could not recall whether Italy had offered assistance in solving the case of Romeo Bone’s car bomb
  • Abela could not remember whether he was under pressure from the Office of the Prime Minister to recall Andrew Caruana Galizia from his posting at Malta’s High Commission in India

Minister Abela was appointed Whip for the Government in 2013. In 2014, he was named Minister for Home Affairs and National Security. After the 2017 snap election he was then given foreign affairs and trade promotion as portfolio. Following the appointment of the new cabinet by Prime Minister Robert Abela, Carmelo Abela was named Minister within the Office of the Prime Minister.

On Wednesday, Culture Minister José Herrera took the witness stand. In court, Herrera said that despite his concerns, the lack of a free vote led him to vote in favour of disgraced former minister Konrad Mizzi when a confidence vote was taken in parliament. He explained that it was either voting with the government whip or resigning.

11:05 The next sitting is on Monday (12.10) 2.30pm. Minister Michael Falzon is set to testify.

On Wednesday at 2pm, Police Inspector Kurt Zahra will testify.

On Friday at 9.30am, Justice Minister Edward Zammit Lewis will testify.
Monique Agius
11:05 Abela steps off the stand. His testimony is concluded.
Monique Agius
11:02 The board of inquiry now turns to question Abela on a fraud case.

Abela says that during a radio show someone had phoned in claiming to have been defrauded and that the police had not done what they should have done.

"When there is such a serious allegation made in my presence, during a phone in, naturally I couldn't let it slide. We took the person's details and I asked a person from the secretariat to look into the matter," he explains.
Monique Agius
11:01 Dr Azzopardi: Were you under pressure to recall him?

Abela: I don't see the relevance.

Dr Azzopardi: You are uncomfortable. Answer the question. Yes or no?

Judge Mallia: Was there pressure or not?

Abela: I don't remember.
Monique Agius
11:00 "I have nothing personally against him…" Abela says.
Monique Agius
10:59 "Do we agree that he was not replaced? Was he only given two weeks notice? Was he placed in an office and not given work? " Azzopardi asks.
Monique Agius
10:59 The board asks for relevance.
Monique Agius
10:58 Asked whether Caruana Galizia had requested the meeting to get reasons for his recall.

"Caruana Galizia had asked to meet me and we had discussed the operation of the ministry," Abela says.
Monique Agius
10:57 Dr Azzopardi says that the priority for the minister two weeks after taking the oath was to recall Andrew Caruana Galizia, I am going to ask the witness whether he was ordered to do so by the Prime Minister and/or Keith Schembri.
Monique Agius
10:54 Dr Azzopardi: Do we agree that Caruana Galizia was posted to Malta's High Commissioner to India?

Abela: Yes.

Dr Azzopardi: In the first few weeks how many diplomats were recalled as soon as you became minister?

Abela: I don't recall the date.

Dr Azzopardi: Why was it such a priority to recall Caruana Galizia on your instructions?
Monique Agius
10:52 Dr Azzopardi: Did you meet Andrew Caruana Galizia post-June 2017?

Abela: After I became foreign minister I wanted to meet all the employees of the ministry. It was a large scale task and took a long time. I met him twice. On one occasion he met him with his colleagues and on another asked to meet me privately in my office.
Monique Agius
10:52 Gafa does not hold a diplomatic passport, Abela says.
Monique Agius
10:51 Asked if he was aware of his actions, Abela says there was a newspaper story featuring Gafa with a Libyan individual but Gafa had no official position within the foreign affairs ministry.
Monique Agius
10:50 Neville Gafa was not an employee or appointee of the ministry, Abela says.
Monique Agius
10:48 Dr Jason Azzopardi asks about Dirty Oil operation and a report alleged falsification of signatures on documents within the foreign ministry. He asks why a magistrate not notified.

The inquiry was led by three permanent secretaries. The board had to establish whether the work was being done according to protocol. It was an administrative inquiry, he explains.
Monique Agius
10:47 The auditor general had given recommendations for administrative action.
Monique Agius
10:47 When the Algerian visa racket was exposed, he was not yet Home Affairs Minister, Abela says.
Monique Agius
10:45 Dr Azzopardi: Could you recall authorizing intercepts about car bombs during this time?

Abela: I don't exclude it, because when I was minister, there was more than one car bomb. I don't exclude that there were persons who were indicated to me by the Head of the Security Services.
Monique Agius
10:44 Dr Azzopardi asks about the warrant signed for phone interceptions.

Abela had testified before Judge Toni Abela about it.
Monique Agius
10:44 Abela says he cannot remember. He does not deny it.
Monique Agius
10:42 Dr Azzopardi asks the witness whether he was informed that Italy had offered assistance following the car bomb which was targeted at Romeo Bone.
Monique Agius
10:42 Abela says that he was not informed personally on what was discussed during that cabinet meeting.
Monique Agius
10:42 Abela was abroad and says he did not have the information.
Monique Agius
10:41 Azzopardi says that the murder took place on a Monday, Cabinet meets on a Tuesday. What was discussed on that day?
Monique Agius
10:40 Asked about the 2017 snap election, Abela said he got to know from the 1 May mass meeting in which Muscat announced the date publicly.

Dr Azzopardi: Were you shocked?

Abela: Yes
Monique Agius
10:39 "From 2016 to 2020 more allegations had emerged. I think it was a timely decision," he replies.
Monique Agius
10:38 Dr Azzopardi notes that the government parliamentary group voted Mizzi out last summer. He asks the witness what has changed from 2016.
Monique Agius
10:36 Abela says that he had voiced his concerns directly to the prime minister in the one-to-one meeting.

'I was satisfied with the discussion and followed through with supporting Mizzi in the confidence vote,' Abela replies.
Monique Agius
10:36 The first question relates to the confidence vote taken in May 2016.
Monique Agius
10:35 Dr Azzopardi steps up to ask questions.
Monique Agius
10:35 Abela says that he did not know about the friendship between Silvio Valletta and Yorgen Fenech before the news stories emerged.
Monique Agius
10:34 Asked about Jonathan Ferris, Abela says that all he knew about him was that he left the police force to join the FIAU which did not fall under his ministry and so he had no contact with him.
Monique Agius
10:34 Keith Schembri would not be present for these meetings.
Monique Agius
10:33 The contact with the Head of the Security Service was regular because of warrants. He says that they did not have specific briefings other than those in the Security Committee where the PM and the leader of the Opposition would be present.
Monique Agius
10:32 The minister says that he was not aware of any briefings by the police chief at the OPM.
Monique Agius
10:31 Abela says that the police commissioners did not brief him on any investigations.
Monique Agius
10:31 Abela says that he only got to know recently from Michael Cassar's testimony about Operation Green and the FIAU report he had received.
Monique Agius
10:30 Abela says that at the time he headed the home affairs ministry, the police chiefs were Michael Cassar followed by Lawrence Cutajar.
Monique Agius
10:26 Minister Abela says that on the day Daphne Caruana Galizia was killed, he had been abroad with the president.

"When I was told, at first I didn't believe it. I was dumbfounded. It is a condemnable thing and I was shocked. I tried to see what the papers were reporting," Abela says.
Monique Agius
10:25 Asked if Muscat felt betrayed, Abela says that question should be directed to the former prime minister.
Monique Agius
10:25 Abela says that Muscat had publicly said that he felt he should shoulder responsibility.
Monique Agius
10:23 "As you say, the important thing is to work together… I have no fact to share if there was anyone who crossed the line or not. Working with the commercial sector is good because it creates jobs," Abela replies.
Monique Agius
10:22 "The problem is when business friendly becomes money friendly. Did you have this feeling that money was taking over?" Chief Justice Emeritus asks.
Monique Agius
10:21 The minister says that he got to know Schembri after the 2013 election and he only got to know how murder suspect Yorgen Fenech looks like after his arrest.
Monique Agius
10:20 Minister Abela says that the aim of the PL in 2013 was a plan for energy.

"I am not a person with friendship ties to the business community. I understand that they want to be close but the more important thing is to keep to a limit," Abela says.
Monique Agius
10:19 Judge Mallia asks about the relationship between businesses and Partit Laburista.

"Were you aware of this encroachment into the party?"
Monique Agius
10:18 Abela says that he was not present for any presentation given on VGH or Electrogas during cabinet meetings.
Monique Agius
10:17 The witness says that he got to know about the MOU with VGH from the press.
Monique Agius
10:16 Abela says that on VGH what he knew was what he got to know from the media.
Monique Agius
10:15 "Didn't you discuss in principle the financial strength of the investor?" Chief Justice Emeritus asks.
Monique Agius
10:14 Chief Justice Emeritus is asking about the apparent contradictions. The project such as the health ones are very important.

"Wouldn't the cabinet discuss the investors and carry out due diligence?" he asks.
Monique Agius
10:12 Cabinet members are notified on projects through memos. The minister would then give a presentation.

"I don't think any cabinet has discussed projects in detail," he tells the board.
Monique Agius
10:12 The Electrogas project had taken off before Abela was made cabinet member.
Monique Agius
10:10 "The chief of staff of any minister are naturally close. On specific projects which you've mentioned involving Konrad Mizzi, one would assume that the minister would discuss with the prime minister. I would not be present for such discussions. I can't really say," Abela says.
Monique Agius
10:10 Judge Lofaro asks about Muscat's inner circle.
Monique Agius
10:06 Chief Justice Emeritus: What difference do you see between the administration of Muscat and the present one, is there a difference on how they operate?

Abela: They're two different people. Naturally Abela entered at a time when he faced a pandemic. I think he would have preferred to start in other ways. Prime minister Muscat had the experience of nearly five years as an Opposition Leader so he had time to prepare.
Monique Agius
10:04 Abela says that then prime minister Joseph Muscat had sought one-to-one meetings with the ministers.

The issue of Panama Papers then were not discussed at a cabinet level since they held such meetings, Abela says.
Monique Agius
10:03 But Schembri did not resign, the board points out.
Monique Agius
10:03 "What I can say in my view… I felt that it was important that they clear their name before continuing with their duties. I had told this to the prime minister," Abela explains.
Monique Agius
10:02 There was some complacency or inaction, said Said Pullicino.
Monique Agius
10:01 The witness says that police were following the allegations just like everyone else.

"I felt I shouldn't intervene. If I did intervene I would be criticised for it, if I don't, I would also be criticised," he says.
Monique Agius
10:00 Minister Abela says that it is important the each and every allegation should be investigated and evidence is gathered to be presented in court.
Monique Agius
10:00 Abela says that he felt that the police should be allowed to work in absolute freedom. The police had to be free to start or not start an investigation as they saw fit.
Monique Agius
09:57 Chief Justice Emeritus notes that some action was taken against Mizzi but no action was taken against Schembri. He maintains that later 17 Black came up.
Monique Agius
09:55 Chief Justice Emeritus: At the time you were Home Affairs Minister. Offshore companies such as these are an avenue for money laundering. Didn't you feel the need to speak to them?

Abela: The police is an independent body and were left to act freely. I was not aware of the advice given by the attorney general.
Monique Agius
09:54 Abela says that he did not feel the need to ask them for an explanation. He recalls that during a parliamentary group meeting, Mizzi felt the need to give his fellow MPs an explanation.
Monique Agius
09:54 Judge Mallia asks about the Panama Papers reveal. He asks whether he felt the need to ask Konrad Mizzi and Keith Schembri for an explanation.
Monique Agius
09:53 "Schembri was a reference point for several people given that he was the chief of staff of the prime minister. It could be he had influence. I never felt the need to consult him, personally," Abela replies to the board.
Monique Agius
09:52 Abela confirms that Schembri attended cabinet meeting.
Monique Agius
09:52 Asked about his relationship with Schembri, Abela says he had a working relationship with him. He adds that he did not meet him in a social context.
Monique Agius
09:51 Judge Mallia: In 2013, when the Electrogas was announced you were spokesperson for the project right?

Abela: Not really… I wouldn't receive any information about this project. The ministry in charge of the project would take of the project's PR.
Monique Agius
09:50 "It appears that Schembri was part of a group that prepared the electoral manifesto for Partit Laburista before the 2013 election. This is public knowledge," Abela replies.
Monique Agius
09:48 Abela says that he met disgraced OPM Chief of Staff Keith Schembri after 2013. He adds that as a candidate he occasionally went to the party's headquarters. Abela does not exclude that Schembri was present at the party headquarters.
Monique Agius
09:48 Minister Abela replies that this was one of the main proposals put forward by Partit Laburista. This led to working on the necessary tenders to implement the project.
Monique Agius
09:47 Chief Justice Emeritus notes that the project was quite complex.
Monique Agius
09:46 Judge Lofaro is questioning the witness on the gas-fired power station. She asks the witness to confirm that then newcomer to politics Konrad Mizzi had divulged details about how this would operate.

Abela says that Mizzi would present the project publicly without divulging into much detail.
Monique Agius
09:45 Abela replying to a question by the board, says that the privatisation of three state hospitals was not brought up.
Monique Agius
09:44 Minister Abela says that before the 2013 election, the sales of passports and the American University of Malta were not mentioned. He explains that Partit Laburista had an electoral manifesto and a pledge to have cheaper utility bills.
Monique Agius
09:44 After the 2017 snap election, Abela was appointed Foreign Affairs Minister.
Monique Agius
09:43 After the 2013 election he was appointed Government's whip and a government spokesperson. He was appointed Minister for Home Affairs in December 2014.
Monique Agius
09:42 Abela's first election was in 1996. He was a candidate in the 2013 election.
Monique Agius
09:42 Judge Mallia start questioning the witness about the senior roles he had within the Labour Party.
Monique Agius
09:40 Minister Carmelo Abela takes the witness stand.
Monique Agius
09:40 We're in session.
Monique Agius
09:30 Dr Jason Azzopardi is also in the courtroom.
Monique Agius
09:22 Minister Carmelo Abela is already in the courtroom. He's accompanied by an aide and lawyer Luciano Busuttil.
Monique Agius
09:21 Good morning and welcome to Newsbook.com.mt live blog. We're live from Hall 20.
Monique Agius

The Board of Inquiry is composed Judge Emeritus Michael Mallia, who is chairing the inquiry board, and two other board members, Chief Justice Emeritus Joseph Said Pullicino and Judge Abigail Lofaro.

Lawyers Jason Azzopardi, Therese Comodini Cachia and Andrew Borg Cardona are appearing for the family.