A judge has thrown out an appeal filed by Finance Minister Edward Scicluna and former ministers Chris Cardona and Konrad Mizzi to be excluded from a magisterial inquiry in relation to the Vitals Global Healthcare (VGH) deal on three of Malta’s public hospitals.
The three politicians will now be under investigation after Judge Edwina Grima denied their appeal. This was the second request for a magisterial inquiry on the deal for the concession on three of Malta’s public hospitals filed by civil society organisation Repubblika. The request was based on evidence published by The Shift.
Earlier this month, Magistrate Doreen Clarke upheld Repubblika’s second request for a magisterial inquiry into the actions of the Finance Minister Scicluna, former Economy Minister Cardona and former Tourism Minister Mizzi who negotiated the deal while serving as Energy Minister the previous term. Mizzi resigned from his role and Cardona ‘suspended himself’ earlier this week following arrests related to the assassination of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia.
This is the third court ruling on an investigation into their actions in relation to transfer of St Luke’s, Karin Grech and Gozo hospitals to Vitals Global Healthcare (VGH) worth €70 million per year, which was then transferred to Steward Healthcare for €1.
Judge Grima distanced herself from earlier decisions of the criminal court handed down by Judge Giovanni Grixti who had ruled the three government officials should not be investigated based on “conjecture” by journalists.
This, however, was overturned by Magistrate Clarke who said that the magisterial inquiry into the actions of the three politicians should be combined with a separate, ongoing inquiry into money laundering and corruption into the same business deal involving Technoline owner Ivan Vassallo.
In today’s ruling, Judge Grima noted that the three politicians had argued that the law did not provide for combining Repubblika’s original request into another ongoing magisterial inquiry. But she pointed out Vassallo had never appealed the decree and that the aim of a magisterial inquiry was to collect and preserve any evidence in relation to a possible crime.
This is in line with views expressed by the director of the Council of Europe’s Group of States against Corruption (GRECO) who said in an interview with The Shift last week that the launching of an inquiry or investigation can be based on reasonable suspicion; it did not require that evidence is readily submitted to them.
The three politicians had taken an active part in negotiations for the hospital deal: “They were the ones leading, and who authorised the money from public funds,” according to the judgment.
Judge Grima pointed out that it would not have made sense to open another separate inquiry into the deal when all the evidence was already being collected. Even though the three politicians were not yet being seen as suspects, pending evidence, there was nothing stopping the inquiring magistrate from ordering that charges were brought against them.
She went on to say that she disagreed with their argument that the facts brought forward by Repubblika were simply “conjectures” as these were in the public domain and should be investigated.
Judge Grixti’s ruling had stated there was insufficient evidence for the inquiry to be opened and that the threshold to request a magistrate to preserve evidence, is actually higher than that required by the police to secure a conviction. This decision led him to being reported to the Commission for the Administration of Justice by lawyer Andrew Borg Cardona who accused him of authoring a decree that resulted in a “loss of respect to the judicial process.”
In 2015, the government struck a deal with VGH to run three public hospitals. The contract, worth billions, was for 99 years but within 18 months VGH was in debt despite receiving millions in bailouts from Maltese taxpayers.
The concession was then ‘sold’ to Steward in 2018, and The Shift revealed that a web of secret companies were set up to ensure that despite VGH’s debts and taking from the public purse, hidden shareholders would profit to the tune of millions.
In their initial appeal, the implicated ministers called The Shift a “partisan news portal”, attacking editor and founder Caroline Muscat. Grixti described The Shift’s investigation as “nothing more than a collection of opinions by journalists and bloggers who chose to join forces to expose as fact that the four suspects had devised a plan to award the hospitals’ contract to VGH, in order to benefit those involved in the deal.”
This “abusive language” against The Shift – the news portal that revealed most of the evidence on the corrupt deal – used by the three Ministers in their court application was reported as a threat to press freedom by the Council of Europe.
Take a look at the evidence revealed by The Shift on the controversial deal here.