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Malta’s exportable Art of the Shady Deal

A fake €5,000 note refers to the daily kickbacks due to Keith Schembri and Konrad Mizzi from Dubai companies 17 Black and MacBridge. Photo: Paul Borg Olivier

Some countries specialise in technology, others specialise in services. Malta specialises in the Art of the Shady Deal.

But it doesn’t just excel at home-grown corruption. Under the regime of Joseph Muscat, it also exports corruption to others.

The latest instalment of The Shift’s ongoing investigation into the Vitals Global Healthcare (VGH) deal outlined exactly how one particular scam works. And I say ‘works’ rather than ‘worked’ because Vitals is still busy picking taxpayer pockets.

It all started right here in Malta — the country with the Mizzi Roadmap.

Frontman and known fraudster Ram Tumuluri rocked up with his carpet bag of empty promises. He worked out a deal with the top brass and they signed a Memorandum of Understanding.

And then the government went through the motions of issuing a public tender for an agreement they’d already concluded: the deal that signed over three public hospitals to a known fraudster who was fronting a brand new company that had no experience whatsoever in the healthcare field.

Before that, Tumuluri was busy running a lakeside hotel into the ground in British Columbia, Canada.

They shovelled taxpayer money into VGH like coal into the boiler of a steam train, but the wheels spun and spun, going nowhere. And then suddenly Vitals was gone.

Enter the American company Steward Healthcare, who showed up to take over.

But hold on. That takeover ran into speed bumps straight away when one of the investors tried to block the sale of VGH to Steward Healthcare. Schembri’s greasy fingerprints were all over this deal, too. He was present at a late night meeting in Castille to help patch things up.

As The Shift has revealed, the more we learn the more it seems like the Steward Healthcare takeover had been planned from the beginning.

Joseph’s Technicolour Dream Team was there to iron out any problems, and came to the rescue so everything would go ahead as planned. And they helped VGH and Steward Healthcare to sign deals with some of the poorest, most corrupt countries in Europe.

Steward Healthcare took over three public hospitals for the princely sum of €1. VGH took all the money they’d been paid while contributing nothing. And a lot of people cashed in on lucrative supply contracts they’d made between their own web of offshore companies and the hospitals.

And that’s when they finally put the ‘global’ into Vitals Global Healthcare.

You see, despite the fancy name, VGH didn’t exist at all before they showed up in Muscat’s Kingdom of Kickbackistan. The hospital takeover in Malta was Phase One of their plan.

They pulled it off it seems with help from a little bald man called Armin Ernst.

Ernst had his feet in both Steward Healthcare and VGH. When he wasn’t doing the corporate splits, he was jumping back and forth from one company to the other, like a Maltese Attorney General both defending the government and prosecuting the government simultaneously.

And since VGH has done such a ‘good job’ in Malta, they’re using their ‘success’ in an EU Member State to take their scam abroad.

That’s right. Good old Ram Tumuluri has taken his carpet bag of hot air to a bunch of other countries, including Montenegro, Albania, Macedonia and Kosovo. All countries with their own versions of Mizzi and Schembri, eager to pad out their ‘retirement funds’ with a little healthcare revenue.

And Ernst and Steward Healthcare are right there, too.

The Shift revealed how VGH and Steward Healthcare are pitching projects in these countries together. They’re poised to pull the same scam they used so successfully in Malta.

VGH takes over, using the name of Malta in their marketing brochures. They hoover up as much cash as possible before admitting financial failure, and then Steward Healthcare sweeps in to save the day, taking over for a nominal fee.

This hospital scam has become another one of Malta’s contributions to Europe. ‘Coming Soon: from the country that brought you Pilatus Bank and Passports for Sale…’

Health Minister Chris Fearne— who took up the portfolio after Mizzi — called the takeover by Steward Healthcare “the real deal”, but his true feelings may have slipped out on an episode of Conflict Zone.

Fearne didn’t perform very well under the grilling he received at the hands of journalist Tim Sebastian. For most of it, he seemed to be channelling his inner Owen Bonnici by repeating the phrase “rule of law” over and over again.

But he came out of character when Sebastian asked him about Vitals. “The Shadow Health Minister said the deal stank of corruption. Why did you sign such an enormous deal with a company that was totally untested in this field?”

“I didn’t sign the deal myself…” Fearne said. “The government signed that deal”.

Fearne was quick to wash his hands of the decision — he didn’t want it attributed to him — but then bumbled through justifications for his government having done so.

And now he’s in the running to replace the thoroughly disgraced Prime Minister who has dug his fingernails into his desk and won’t let go.

Fearne toed the Party line on VGH when he was Health Minister. But would the former doctor do the same as Prime Minister without Muscat breathing down his neck? Or is he now too compromised to act?

I think we know what we could expect from his rival leadership candidate Robert Abela. Muscat’s legal consultant has previously accused the family of assassinated journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia of using her murder investigation to further their own political agendas — whatever those are — and of feeling “repugnance” for the country.

And on Tuesday, Abela told the Labour Party’s TV station that he “tolerated” peaceful protest, but that the only purpose of the ongoing anti-corruption demonstrations in Valletta was to provoke.

Provoke who, exactly? The government? The police? Or political party thugs? We can only hope no one has to tolerate Abela as Prime Minister. His smug arrogance was clearly modelled on that of ‘il-Kink’.

This entire “leadership race” was a farce from the beginning.

Nothing is stopping Muscat from handing over to the Deputy Prime Minister right now. That’s why the role exists, to take over the running of the government should the Prime Minister be incapacitated by illness, death, moral rot, or crippling corruption.

The Deputy Prime Minister does not need to be ‘uncontested’ in order for him to do so. Muscat simply has to clear his desk and leave.

Abela throwing his name in as a leadership contender gave Muscat a convenient excuse for staying around until January, under terms he already dictated. The ploy is as transparent as the source of the stench infesting Castille.

Can we expect cleanliness in the post-Muscat era with Fearne or Abela at the helm?

I see very little reason for hope with the King of Kickbackistan still pulling the strings.

Paul Caruana Galizia named New Journalist of the Year – British Journalism Awards

‘Joseph Muscat is inextricably linked to several suspects in the case’