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The Shift News 10 most read stories, reports, and investigations of 2019

Konrad Mizzi

The Shift published hundreds of reports, stories and investigations in 2019 covered a wide range of topics linked to Malta and abroad. But which ones went viral?

From Prime Minister Joseph Muscat’s descent into dictator-like tendencies and his wife’s couture, to tuna smuggling, VAT carousel fraud, and exporting fraud on Malta’s public hospitals deal to the Balkan States, these are the stories we brought you this year, that you loved the most.

  1. Exporting fraud: How a scam on public hospitals in Malta reached the poorest, most corrupt European countries

The latest installment in the ongoing Vitals Global Healthcare/Steward Healthcare investigation by The Shift found that Pakistani investors Ram Tumuluri and Shaukat Ali Abdul Ghafoor were busy exporting the scam to Albania and Montenegro.

The Shift found that a series of Memorandums of Understanding were signed between VGH, Steward and the governments of the two Balkan states that would pave the way for them to take over, renovate and build public hospitals. Using Malta as an example of their “success”, they negotiated deals that could see taxpayers of two of Europe’s poorest countries lose out to the tune of millions.

  1. The elephant in the room

Back in February, a video went viral on social media that showed a large number of police officers turning up at the home of a private citizen, Mario Portelli. A former police officer, Portelli had claimed that Muscat had lied under oath on the Egrant enquiry and that he was ready to confront him.

The video showed officers descend on his home, snatch his mobile phone from him, and use significant force to take him to a mental institution where he was kept for some time. The Shift questioned why the police were so quick to act as well as the handling of Portelli as both a citizen and as a patient.

  1. Fenech charged with cocaine possession in US five months ago

Earlier this month, The Shift found that Yorgen Fenech, who is a suspect in the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia, had been sentenced to 30 days in an American jail for possession of “more than 4 grams but less than 200 grams” of cocaine. Court documents seen by The Shift show that he had been arrested in Houston on 15 July of this year and pled guilty to the charges. Instead of serving time, the jail term was converted to a stay in a rehab treatment facility called Sierra Tuscon Hospital.

Fenech is currently on trial for his alleged part in the assassination. He is pleading not guilty to the charges after being stopped by the Armed Forces of Malta and police when he tried to to flee the country on his luxury yacht on 20 November.

  1. ‘What the fuck, Joe’: Emails to PM reveal dismissal of abuse by developer

Correspondence seen, and then published, by The Shift found that Prime Minister Joseph Muscat had been made aware of Gozitan property developer Joseph Portelli’s illegalities, but dismissed it by saying “what the fuck, Joe”, saying it was an “invention” and he was “offended”.

Labour Party activist Joseph Dalli brought a number of issues relating to planning permits to Muscat’s attention in 2014 and asked “are we going to let things remain the same with contractors and MEPA? In the past, we used to say they were in their pockets what do we say about today?” Read the full chain of emails here.

  1. Yorgen Fenech named as owner of gaming company involved in ‘criminal network’

Earlier this year,  it was revealed that Fenech was the owner of an iGaming company involved in a number of illegalities, including operating in Norway without a license and making the transfer of money to and from Norwegian banks.

Authorities in the Nordic country stopped a number of bank transactions between companies that acted as intermediaries for online casinos, including one of Fenech’s that was structured in a way that was designed to hide the fact he was the beneficial owner. According to the Swedish Tax Agency, his company was also evading tax, something Fenech of course denied.

  1. On rights and abuses

Following his seizure and internment in Mount Carmel Hospital earlier in the year, Mario Portelli posted another video in August, this time from a confined solitary cell at the mental health hospital. He claimed he was once again arrested and imprisoned after stating that Egrant, the third company revealed in the Panama Papers was owned by the Prime Minister.

Portelli claimed that he was being silenced through the use of “all the tools of the State”, adding “you know what happened to Daphne.” Civil society and the Democratic Party called for investigations into the way he was apprehended and imprisoned, but to date, nothing has materialised.

  1. Michelle Muscat in outfit by prison labour scandal designer

Michelle Muscat, the wife of the Prime Minister, was spotted donning designs by Mary Grace Pisani – her close friend and also the woman at the centre of the Corradino prison cheap labour scandal in 2016. In images posted on Facebook, Michelle wore a white headdress and a matching outfit for the inauguration of President George Vella.

As well as having her own fashion brand, Pisani’s other claim to fame was when 14 inmates said they were owed over €16,000 for work they had done for the Marigold Foundation which is chaired by Muscat herself. The project, which was the ‘brainchild’ of Pisani, trained inmates how to sew, got them producing curtains and costumes for government projects and then didn’t pay them. When they were paid, it transpired they were paid well under the market rate at just €3 per metre.

Michelle Muscat Cessani
Michelle Muscat wearing a creation by Mary Grace Pisani who was at the centre of a scandal in 2016.
  1. The King of Kickbackistan goes full dictator

As a political crisis of unparallelled severity gripped Malta at the end of the year, Prime Minister Joseph Muscat responded by going full throttle authoritarian and locking up journalists in Castille, at 3am, following a so-called press conference.

He denied this but claimed it was “procedure” to avoid crowding at the doors. In Kickbackistan, perhaps this is the case, but in an EU Member State that claims to be a democracy, surely not.

  1. Grand Theft Europe: Malta’s role in a scam worth €50 billion annually

Maltese companies were found to have been involved in a Europe-wide racket responsible for robbing European taxpayers of some €50 billion every year. In a cross-border joint investigation involving The Shift News, some 300,000 pages of tax and security investigations provided indisputable evidence that companies incorporated in Malta were being set up with the sole intention of facilitating VAT carousel fraud.

These companies allowed criminals to steal taxpayers money from other  EU states, creating a black hole worth billions, that is used to finance the mafia, terrorism and other illicit activity.

  1. Revealed: illegal tuna fishing rife around Malta’s ‘farms’

The Shift revealed that stray wild tuna that lurk around Malta’s fish farms were being illegally caught and sold, amounting to tens of thousands of kilogrammes of fish. A senior source within the fishing industry that spoke to The Shift said illegal fishing was rife around the Is-Sikka Tan-Nofs reef, six kilometres off the shore of Marsaskala.

The revelations came after a scandal rocked Malta earlier in the year which found that Malta was implicated in tuna smuggling racket worth €12 million every year. Operation Tarantelo – a Spanish-led investigation implicated Malta Fish Farming and Mare Blu, as well as Andreina Fenech Farrugia the Director-General of the Fisheries and Agricultural Department in smuggling, corruption, bribery, and illegal tuna farming.

Joseph Muscat

Muscat chosen as 2019 Person of the Year in Organized Crime and Corruption

Qatari royal family members gained Maltese citizenship in 2018