The Vitals mystery just keeps getting deeper.
No, the mystery is how they’re going to hold it all together. The warning shots have been flying faster than a stolen Maserati, and the biggest question is, “who’s going to cave?”. I think it simply has to be the government — but there’s more than one wildcard at play.
The first warning shot was fired from the washroom of disgraced former prime minister Joseph Muscat. On this side of the pond, the ‘laundry’ is done at Pilatus and in silent Switzerland.
Anyway, the first warning shot was fired when a very angry Muscat took to social media to threaten some sort of political comeback.
You’re unlikely to find his signature on anything, or Keith Schembri’s, for that matter. Konrad Mizzi was always meant to be the fall guy if things went wrong. Far from being the technocrat genius they spun him up to be, Mizzi was the willing dupe, gullible enough to sign the contracts with an incriminating flourish of his poison pen.
But signatures aren’t the only damning connection in a story like this. There are also money trails. They’re typically papered over with invented invoices, often for some sort of ‘service’ which isn’t easy to disprove. ‘Consulting’ is a common one.
An awfully suspicious money trail was exposed between Muscat and Switzerland. And by some unfortunate coincidence, another money trail was found between Steward and that same Swiss nexus, with timing to suggest the current owner of those formerly public hospitals in Malta sent a very large sum of money to Switzerland to ‘compensate’ several Vitals players for the recent €1 acquisition.
Muscat’s house was ‘searched’ soon after, as was the government property he’s using as an unofficial office, and he was clearly very unhappy about being probed somewhere vulnerable, somewhere vital.
Hence his warning to Abela that, despite his humiliating fall from grace, the former prime minister is still pretty popular with the Party hardcore, and he’s not above calling them into the streets to save his shrinking hide.
But Muscat’s warning shot wasn’t the first one fired in this conflict. It was just the first one fired on the Malta front.
Shots had already been exchanged in the UK courts, where hostilities had broken out in 2019 between Steward and one of the original VGH hidden ‘investors’ who was worried about his co-conspirators screwing him out of his cut.
Steward tried to defend itself by claiming the original deal was fraudulent, mired in corruption, and they filed unredacted copies of all VGH agreements and side letters to back this up, which The Shift revealed. They weren’t fighting for justice, mind you. They were applying duress in the hope of coming to an out of court settlement with the ‘investor’.
Unfortunately, nothing happens in a bubble. Those documents filed in a UK court have made their way back to Malta, chumming waters that were already swirling with blood.
The latest warning shot in this veiled mob war was fired by Steward president (and former VGH VP) Nadine Delicata, who claimed her company has been unfairly maligned. Steward came on the scene “in good faith”, and reportedly at the request of the government of Malta — yet another violation of procurement regulations, if true — and took over a concession which was in “a dire state of emergency”.
What sort of emergency?
No contractual obligations delivered, despite having soaked up tens of millions of euro in taxpayer funds.
No money in the bank to pay staff salaries, despite annual transfers from the government of some €70 million per year for running those hospitals.
And most damning of all, a commitment to Steward “that the terms of the deal would be renegotiated to make the concession viable”. In other words, a secret promise of more money. A lot more money.
This may explain Joseph Muscat’s presence at the first meeting between Steward and the new prime minister, made just weeks after the former’s forced exit from office. Was he facilitating an introduction, as he claimed? Or was he there to let Abela know which side the bread was buttered on?
What happened to all the money that’s already been flushed down the golden hole of Vitals? This is the question everyone but the government wants answered.
And why can’t Steward make it work, despite having already been paid over €300 million in taxpayer funds? In case you’re having trouble putting those numbers into perspective, it amounts to €138,000 per day in 2021 alone.
They could start by asking Armin Ernst — and by “asking” I mean interrogating, by police investigators, after being duly cautioned.
Ernst will know the details of what Delicata described in her opinion piece in The Times of Malta: “VGH had created a raft of companies, shifting assets between them and burning through funds. On taking over VGH’s operations, Steward also discovered that there were no management accounts at all, and that – shockingly – there had never been so much as an attempt at an audit of the company by the relevant authorities. VGH’s owners had been left, unattended, with a massive amount of taxpayer money, with no one checking up on how they were delivering on their commitments.”
And she ought to know. She was VGH’s vice president at the time.
Steward also confirmed, in a separate response, that the Swiss firm which paid ‘consultancy fees’ to Muscat also received a whopping big payment from Steward when Steward acquired the hospital concession from VGH.
In other words, they can turn up the heat on the magisterial inquiry into Muscat’s payments if anyone’s bold enough to push them that far.
So why this latest warning shot by Steward? How does it fit the bigger picture?
They’re reminding a government that’s under pressure to perform in the upcoming election, and to best Joseph Muscat’s 2017 majority, that it had better deliver on the promises its predecessor seems to have made.
If it doesn’t, Steward has more than enough dirt to send Abela’s ship gurgling to the seafloor, along with the angry washroom selfie star.
In the meantime, everyone still in government is doing everything they can to disavow knowledge of the scam, and the things they said in the past are coming back to haunt them.
I wonder how much Chris Fearne regrets having called Steward “the real deal”? From our current vantage point, it’s impossible to conclude he didn’t know the deal stank, no matter how much he tries to blame it all on Mizzi.
This should be a fatal blow to Fearne’s leadership aspirations. He was seen as a lesser evil compared to Muscat’s cabal, someone reasonably honest who would come in and sweep up at least some of the rot.
But his blind eye on Vitals, and the way he used public funds to reward his closest assistants (and their closest kin), as well as his own, with lucrative government jobs, has revealed Fearne is no better than his colleagues – just more hypocritical.
The only one not firing warning shots in this debacle is poor cornered Konrad Mizzi. He’s too busy avoiding questions at the PAC hearings on Electrogas, stalling desperately in the hopes that it’ll all be derailed by the upcoming election.
He’s pulled just about every sick note trick he can think of, from coronavirus isolation to some sort of inpatient treatment. The only thing he hasn’t tried is a good old fashioned case of the cooties.
As ridiculous as that whole farce has become, Mizzi’s general line of approach is sound. The election will derail the PAC hearings, at least for a while. And in a country where the majority of voters really seem to believe ‘might is right’, being able to claim absolution by ballot box will enable him to brush aside past crimes just as easily as Joseph Muscat’s massive majority was used to bestow ‘forgiveness’ for every pre-2017 transgression.
The one major difference between these two stories is that, in 2017, Malta was still on the ‘up’ economically — and therein lies the rub.
The government of Robert Abela is a ship desperately scrambling for the harbour with multiple holes below the waterline, and bulkheads rupturing on a daily basis.
The captain’s only hope is that he can win enough electoral support to let him make the most badly exposed Muscat loyalists walk the plank in his post-election Cabinet reshuffle.
A week is an awfully long time in politics in a sea that’s choked with hidden shoals.