On Monday, during two excruciating minutes of dodging questions from journalists, while running through a slideshow of postures — walking-with-purpose, indignation-at-dishonesty, law-explained-to-idiots, more-serious-things-on-my-mind — Robert Abela made a promise.
People could watch that evening’s edition of TVM’s Xtra and hear his “full explanation” of the 2018 property agreement he had with Christian Borg — today, a 28-year-old who is alleged to have various criminal links.
The agreement was in itself legal and the papers were filed with the authorities: Abela transferred his share of the rights to buy a plot in Zabbar to Borg — at a profit. But was it a bona fide transaction?
Borg was then Abela’s client. It’s unusual for lawyers to enter business transactions with clients. Borg was 25 at time, a bit young to be flush. This kind of property transfer is known to be used as a legal loophole for tax evasion and money laundering.
People are asking questions. For all we know, Abela has the evidence to put them to rest; but the questions flow naturally. Newsbook and The Times of Malta put several to him in two minutes. Saviour Balzan, on Xtra, with an hour at his disposal to get the “full explanation”, asked only one.
Balzan asked (I paraphrase): What do you say about the “missiles” sometimes launched at you by your adversaries, such as the story that broke yesterday?
Balzan’s habitual programme attire is a black suit, white shirt and black necktie. Wicked tongues say he dresses like journalism’s undertaker. My money is on the Reservoir Dogs look. Monday’s edition, however, was all Pulp Fiction.
Balzan opened with a zinger: How come the election will be held when it’s due? There were two follow-up questions — which gives some perspective on the single question, with no follow-up, on the property deal.
Balzan framed the story as an Opposition attack — not a rival newspaper’s revelation. Abela replied with a five-minute monologue, in which he evaded the central questions.
The four-part answer began with slamming the Opposition leader, Bernard Grech, for raising the matter of possible tax evasion when his own past income tax declarations weren’t credible.
True, but irrelevant. The story was broken in the press. Questions about Grech don’t make questions about Abela go away.
Second, Abela said the agreement was public, registered and taxes had been paid on it. No one questions that. The issue is whether the agreement is what it seems: that Abela really intended to buy a plot in Zabbar and then changed his mind, selling the right to buy it to someone else.
Abela could easily settle this. What amount of time separated the date when Abela signed the original promise of sale and the date of him selling it? The longer the time, the more credible that he changed an original intention. If he can show he had made financial arrangements for a bank loan to buy the property, that’s more evidence of his bone fide intention.
Of course, if the transfer came hot on the heels of the original agreement, and Abela hadn’t made any arrangements for a loan, then he’s got some explaining to do.
Third, Abela said the property transfer is perfectly regular. Last year alone, there were 1,700 such transactions. Were all the people involved — some 7,000 — all tax evaders and money launderers?
No one’s said that. What’s been said is that a perfectly legitimate transaction is sometimes exploited as a loophole for nefarious purposes.
Abela could shut down the innuendo about himself immediately. He can tell us how many other such transactions he’s been involved in. He’s denied having entered into more than one with Borg. But asked (by The Times and Newsbook) whether he’s ever engaged in other property transfers, he replied, “Those that would emerge from research”.
To a lot of people, that sounds like, “catch me if you can”.
If you change your mind on buying a property once, that can pass. If you change your mind several times — especially with clients — that smacks of premeditated use of a loophole.
Finally, Abela protested that he couldn’t predict that, three years down the line, Borg would be embroiled in the news as he is today.
Another evasion. The question is about what he could reasonably have known in 2018. Did Abela have no questions, back then, about the origins of the 25-year-old’s wealth?
Abela’s answer is that it was the notary’s responsibility to check that. For the property deal, yes. But Abela knew Borg as a client. Did nothing about Borg ring any bells to an experienced lawyer?
If Abela gives reasonable answers to all the real questions, he’d shut the story down instantly. He’d have the pleasure of leaving Grech and Jason Azzopardi with egg on their face — utterly discrediting their suspicions.
Instead, he promised a full explanation but the only thing it was full of was baked air.