As Chief of Staff of the Prime Minister, Keith Schembri is one of the most powerful and influential people in Malta.
His relationship with the Prime Minister is not a private arrangement among friends.
Schembri’s appointment was one of the most important political decisions made by Prime Minister Joseph Muscat. His decision to re-appoint him after the general election, despite pending criminal magisterial inquiries on serious allegations against him, underlines how indispensable he is for Muscat .
When he accepted the appointment he must have known he would be facing a high level of scrutiny, as anyone in his position deserves.
Schembri was outed in the Panama papers for owning a company in Panama – the process for setting it up started a few days after the 2013 general election. The Cabinet had not even been appointed yet.
He is now facing two magisterial inquiries to establish the need for investigation into two matters: one, to establish whether he received kickbacks related to the sale of passports and, two, to establish whether payments made to the former managing director of Allied Newspapers Adrian Hillman through secret companies amounted to money laundering.
Schembri denies any wrongdoing, and as a private citizen he is within his rights to defend himself in a court of law which would ultimately determine his innocence or guilt. But as a public servant, and as the Prime Minister’s closest aide, Schembri should have resigned the moment his offshore investments in secretive locations were brought to light.
Schembri serves as the Chief of Staff of a Prime Minister of a European Union Member State. This means that his role is relevant, not just to Maltese but to all Europeans. Schembri must be prepared to face questions by the delegation of MEPs investigating the rule of law in Malta.
Schembri has already dodged two invitations to appear before the Pana committee. In February 2017 the reason he gave for failing to appear was that he was not an elected official, but someone who holds a position of trust.
In so doing Schembri conveniently ignored the fact that as the PM’s most trusted public official, he wields more power than any Member of Parliament. He may not be an elected official, but he forms part of the government’s central nervous system.
Socialist MEP Anna Gomez, who will be leading the delegation that commences its investigation today, described Schembri’s refusal to appear before the PANA committee last April as “one which could only be interpreted as a sign that he cannot face us because he has something to hide”.
Gomez was also right in putting the responsibility for Schembri’s refusal to appear in front of the committee on the PM.
“It also pains me that the Prime Minister of Malta seems to be covering up for his Chief of Staff at the same time that he states he is against corruption and in favour of transparency. If he really believes in these things, he should order his Chief of Staff to come and face MEPs”.
Gomez also rebuked Schembri for questioning the European Parliament’s mandate to summon him.
“How can he question the delegation’s mandate, which is solid and was established by the European Parliament? This alone is reason enough for him to be dismissed by the Prime Minister, unless there is something more complicated that is being hidden.”
Schembri should stop hiding from MEPs. His behaviour is shaming the country. He owes Europe an explanation. He is accountable to democratically elected representatives of the European people.