Arrogant crescendo – Arnold Cassola

Before 2013 I had never heard of Keith Schembri. Today, five years later, his has become a household name, of international repute.

Of course, people in business did know him since he was, and is, a leading figure in the field of paper importation.

His rise to international fame started with the Panama Papers’ revelations but this has been supplemented by his close relationship with Brian Tonna of Nexia BT, with Seyed Ali Sadr Hasheminejad of Pilatus Bank, with the Azerbaijani connection, with Crane Currency and, the latest, by his involvement with MFSP Financial Management, a company that has been fined €38,750 for breaching a number of anti-money laundering laws by the FIAU.

I have been told that the Prime Minister’s friendship with Schembri dates back to their sixth form days, nearly 30 years ago. So, a very strong bond exists between the two.

But what to me has remained a mystery till this very day is why Joseph Muscat has been defending and protecting Schembri (and Konrad Mizzi) since day one, more than 800 days ago, over the Panama revelations. One might be close friends, but faced with such blatant facts, how can the Prime Minister not do anything?

Why has Muscat basically given up the possibility of replacing Donald Tusk in the most prestigious post of EU Council president just to defend and cover up for the proven misdemeanours of Schembri and Mizzi?

My hunch is that Schembri wields such clout in our country that even powerful institutions have to bow their heads to him.

And that is why Muscat is completely impotent when it comes to taking action against Schembri.

But the Prime Minister’s office is not the only powerful institution that has had to bow its head to our country’s foremost grey eminence.

Do you remember the Keith Schembri-Adrian Hillman affair? According to one of the FIAU leaked reports, Allied Newspapers’ former managing director allegedly received kickbacks from Schembri.

Progress Press was a prime client of Schembri. Understandably so, since he is the major importer of paper in Malta.

What is much less comprehensible is why it decided to buy printing machinery worth millions and millions of euros from Schembri at a time when the printed newspapers were losing ground at the expense of the fast-developing internet media.

Whatever, the Allied Newspapers management set up a board of inquiry to investigate these allegations of kickbacks. The end result was extremely surprising: the conclusions of the board were kept secret from the public, something which goes very much against the much-vaunted cry of transparency.

To add even more spice to the mystery surrounding this inquiry, Allied Newspapers issued a communiqué whereby they declared that they had reached a private agreement with Hillman concerning “any claims they have or may have had against each other and, as a result, all litigation was being withdrawn”.

Having asserted his power vis-à-vis such political and journalistic institutions, Schembri’s arrogant behaviour increased by leaps and bounds and started being flaunted even at international level.

When he was invited to appear before the PANA committee, our man basically gave the members of the committee his middle finger.

Not only did he fail to appear before the committee but he actually told the politically-mandated group that he was calling into question the PANA committee’s mandate.

From here onwards there was no stopping this crescendo of arrogance. Questioned by a Times of Malta journalist on his presence at the Pilatus Bank owner’s wedding, his answer was: “Yes, I was there. Incidentally, I recall being seated shoulder to shoulder with a sitting director of the Allied Group [Austin Bencini], which publishes your newspaper.”

And when he was questioned about the money supposedly to be deposited in the Dubai 17 Black company, his cryptic answer was: “I’ve been answering your stupid questions for four years. Maybe I used that money to pay your wages, like I did over the past three years.”

What is the hidden power that fires Schembri to speak with such brazen arrogance and contempt?

Our country is in deep trouble also because of Schembri.

Following the European Banking Authority investigations, FIAU has been chastised for the Pilatus Affair, in which Schembri is involved.

The FIAU now has only 10 working days to explain how it intends to improve its activities.

Arnold Cassola
Published on the Times of Malta – 14 July 2018