Former Economy Minister Christian Cardona, who had signed the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) for the Vitals Global Healthcare (VGH) hospitals’ deal despite a due diligence report sounding the alarm on two of the shareholders, downplayed the level of commitment of such a controversial agreement.
On Friday, the Board of the public inquiry looking into the assassination of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, asked Cardona why he had signed the MOU with VGH. Cardona replied that he used to sign many MOUs, despite not being part of the negotiations.
“The MOU is an agreement to negotiate a contract, it is not binding, like a contract,” he said, which was challenged by Chief Justice Emeritus Joseph Said Pullicino.
Cardona insisted: “It is not enforceable, not a promise of sale”.
In July 2020, the National Audit Office (NAO) had, after finally obtaining a copy of the MOU, issued a damning report concluding that not only was the Vitals procurement vitiated through the prior signing of this MOU but that the process “was fraudulently contrived”.
Despite Cardona signing “many” MOUs, including 15 for private companies and 10 memorandums of an institutional nature, he was unable to tell the Board whether an MOU was signed for the Electrogas deal.
“It’s better if I don’t answer because I don’t know,” he said, adding that the project was set up by former Minister Konrad Mizzi.
During follow-up questions by Caruana Galizia family lawyer Therese Comodini Cachia, the former Economy Minister told the Board how a UK firm which Malta Enterprise had used to conduct due diligence on the individuals behind the VGH deal, had flagged two shareholders. Despite this, they were not removed from the deal.
“It was my responsibility to raise the red flags, which is what I did, and (after the due diligence) I told Malta Enterprise to stop,” he said adding that the Office of the Prime Minister would have been aware of such an indicator.
Instead of removing anyone in question, another two shareholders were added to the project. “Were the two flagged still there?” asked Judge Abigail Lofaro. “Yes,” Cardona replied.
Pressure on Mizzi to complete Electrogas project in six months
Said Pullicino voiced concern about how the people involved in the Electrogas project were selected so quickly.
“All I can is that there was huge pressure on Mizzi to complete the project in six months,” Cardona said.
“What worries us is that will all these big, international projects, there is always something which is not as it’s supposed to be, and it is not only with one project, but all. And they are all projects which are of a certain size and involve lots of money and the same people,” Said Pullicino noted.
Unlike other witnesses who have testified, Cardona said he did not believe that former Chief of Staff Keith Schembri held too much power in his role as chief of staff, but rather found it “proportional” to his position.
“He had the power of a politician,” Judge Michael Mallia noted.
Comodini Cachia pressed Cardona on who should have taken political responsibility for their actions during his tenure. Cardona refused to be specific but said, “Panama was a big political mistake – that is the clearest case in my view,” he said, referring to the offshore companies owned by Schembri and Mizzi revealed in the Panama Papers.
Asked about the ‘Kitchen Cabinet‘, mentioned by Ministers Evarist Bartolo and Edward Scicluna in their testimonies and referring to those close to Muscat and Schembri, Cardona was adamant that “it did not exist, both formally and informally”.
Allegations of involvement in assassination ‘a frame-up’
Asked about his being implicated in the assassination, Cardona denied any involvement and told the Board that he was the victim to “a frame-up”. Yet he has, so far, taken no action to clear his name.
“There were many allegations but none has been proven,” Cardona told the Board.
Lawyer Jason Azzopardi questioned Cardona about a number of allegations but Cardona denied having spoken to alleged hitman Alfred Degiorgio in a bar, and denied that he had attended a bachelor party with him.
“I had attended the wedding, not the bachelor party,” he said.
“Did Degiorgio also attend?” Azzopardi asked.
“I don’t know, but I suspect so,” the former Economy Minister replied.
Cardona also denied allegations made about him throughout the compilation of evidence against prime murder suspect Yorgen Fenech. Yet he did confirm that Degiorgio’s daughter had worked with the government, however he got to know about it later, he said.
When questioned by Comodini Cachia about the mysterious letter pinning the blame on Cardona for Caruana Galizia’s murder, Cardona said that he still does now know who wrote the message and did not name whom he suspected, despite asking the police to analyse it.
The letter had instructed prime murder suspect Yorgen Fenech to blame Caruana Galizia’s murder on Cardona. The Fenech family doctor, Adrian Vella, who had passed on the letter to Fenech, had allegedly told police that it was Schembri who had given him the letter. Schembri has denied it.
Comodini Cachia asked Cardona that if he was so adamant that he was not “involved in a frame-up”, why he had never taken any action, such as libel suits, against reports about him.
“After the libels that I filed against Daphne Caruana Galizia I decided to never file a libel suit again in my life… you become the centre of attention. It’s not worth it” he said.
“Did you ask for an investigation?” asked Comodini Cachia.
“I had asked for it, but the letter was tampered with,” he replied.
Lofaro asked whether he continued challenging this. “If I had been implicated in a murder I would want to clear my name,” she said.
“The right moment will come for me to take action,” he said, adding that he does not want to hinder the “different investigations” of the police in the case.
Cardona was also asked about The Shift’s report on an incident where Muscat had fainted two days prior to the assassination, to which the former minister replied that Muscat had not eaten anything that day. He said he did not know why the public was kept uninformed about the incident.
Blocking mobile numbers of journalists
Cardona went from telling the Board that he was forthcoming with journalists who requested interviews, to recalling how he had blocked specific journalists, including Caruana Galizia, from calling him.
He said the journalist had written about him on a personal level rather than been critical about his work. “To her, I was dirt and a drug addict,” he said.
Cardona told the Board that he did not have a relationship with Caruana Galizia, and would not speak to her on the phone.
“I block numbers that I don’t know,” he argued, first saying that he would not know who was on the other line, then telling the Board that he expected it to be the journalist.
“I anticipated that it could be her, as the number would always call when a story was about to be published. I had also done that with a journalist who used to call and I would suddenly be on live radio.”
This was perhaps a mild form of hostility towards the journalist when compared to the beginning of 2017 when Cardona had sued Caruana Galizia for libel after she alleged that he and his personal aide Joseph Gerada had visited a brothel in Velbert while on an official visit to Germany.
The former minister had then asked the court to serve Caruana Galizia with a garnishee order of €46,000 following the brothel allegations. This effectively froze Caruana Galizia’s bank accounts and on the fateful day of 16 October 2017, Caruana Galizia was on her way to the bank to see whether she could access her accounts. He dropped the case in October 2018 before his mobile phone location data was revealed.