Unlike Keith Schembri I wasn’t born a businessman. I never lived like one. And I’m not going to die like one. I respect the fact that he has talents I don’t. So do Roger Federer, Stephen Fry, and Rocco Siffredi. And yet with all of them I share basic human faculties. If they’re tickled, they laugh. If they’re cut, they bleed. If they’re asked if they paid a lot of money to set up a company in an offshore jurisdiction and that company would have been the subject of near constant controversy from February 2016 to April 2023, and the killing of a journalist that has made the front page of The New York Times several times has been connected to it, their answer, like mine, would not be ‘I don’t remember’.
Misplaced memory failure during a pre-scheduled public questioning on the scandal of the century is not a typical characteristic of businessmen, born or made. It is, on the other hand, something to be expected of the liar, the thief caught with their hand in the till. It is the falsely indignant reaction of Rene Artois caught with his tongue down the throat of a cocktail waitress saying he forgot how it got there.
Keith Schembri did know, he confessed, that a trust in New Zealand was being set up for him. I’m sorry, why is that ok? The Panama company scandal was not about Panama per se. It was about the company, about the fact that it was offshore, the fact that it was in a secretive jurisdiction, the fact that it was set up within days of Keith Schembri coming to office. There’s no specific reason to dislike Panama. It could have been anywhere. It could have been New Zealand. Damn it, it was New Zealand. So?
Keith Schembri admitted to a New Zealand trust hoping that some misguided racial prejudice in his audience would find the location in a country of white people and white sheep harmless. It’s not about where it was.
Keith Schembri may have been born a businessman and he may be sure he will die one. I’m not entirely certain how one is born a businessman. Did Keith Schembri pop out of his mother’s womb holding a calculator, a business plan, and a structuring plan for offshore accounts? Quite why being born a businessman, whatever that means, excuses setting up offshore jurisdictions in places which have nothing to do with your business activity is beyond me. Keith Schembri was not making his profit in New Zealand. So why did he need his money to be held there? Why not here? Why didn’t he want to pay taxes in Malta which was supporting his business and making him profit? Why didn’t he want to compensate Malta for the environmental damage of his business? Why didn’t he want to contribute to the wellbeing of members of the Maltese community who depend on its welfare state? Why are we normalising tax evasion?
Worse. When he asked, as he admits he has, for a New Zealand company to be set up he wasn’t a businessman. Whatever he was born as, he became something else. He became a newly minted public official. He was the prime minister’s chief of staff, for crying out loud, which in theory meant that he was the principal assistant of the top public servant of the country, ultimately responsible for all public services. Those responsibilities include raising enough taxes to pay for the cost of running the country, just the sort of taxes Keith Schembri set himself up to avoid paying.
I accept of course that I’m playing Keith Schembri’s game. He’d happily admit to tax dodging because if you’re born a businessman that’s the sort of thing you’re apparently expected to do. But there’s more to this than tax dodging. He ordered, as he admitted he has, the New Zealand structure to be set up so that he could dodge the scrutiny of more than the tax authorities. He wanted to evade your scrutiny because he set up that structure to take bribes. He does not admit that. He denies it. But how can you trust the denials of someone so forgetful? The man is positively amnesiac which explains both the glaring gaps in his memory and the wild incoherence of whatever remains.
Some of those gaps are filled by the documentary evidence he was confronted with. There were the written statements that the company would be receiving money from Yorgen Fenech, not in some indetermined future when Keith Schembri would no longer be a public official but in the present when he was. More importantly in the present because he was a public official and able to add value to Yorgen Fenech’s business by bringing public contracts his way. Some other gaps are filled by other witnesses. First, Silvio Valletta who publicly and under oath declared Keith Schembri blocked police investigations that could have, would have landed Keith Schembri and his business associates into criminal trouble. Second, Edward Scicluna who publicly and under oath declared that financial decisions that favoured Keith Schembri’s business associates excluded the deliberations, let alone the imprimatur, of the finance minister and his ministry.
Rarely in a trial does the accused break down and admit through tears their guilt, overwhelmed by the evidence against them. Most criminals on trial will say nothing, avoiding adding to the evidence against them with their responses. Every time Keith Schembri said he couldn’t remember he was jumbling two classic criminal defences: the right to avoid incriminating oneself with one’s (meaningful) responses and to right to plead insanity. Yesterday we watched him juggle both at the same time. For the rest of it, criminals on trial, through their lawyers, seek to discredit the evidence against them. Witnesses are liars, they say. Documents are mistakes. Where the evidence doesn’t match their narrative, they say it must be fabricated, misinterpreted, taken out of context, is inadmissible, useless, and to be disregarded.
Jurors and judges are not to wait for the accused to admit before they convict. They must reach a decision with conviction based on the balance of what they heard and what is more credible.
Is the paperwork that emerged from the Panama Papers despite the best efforts of Keith Schembri and his service providers to conceal it, more credible than Keith Schembri denying he meant it into existence? Of course, it is. What must happen then? The evidence in front of the PAC can only lead to a report in the end. But the public is hearing the evidence and it is now the public’s duty to reach a judgement. I understand why you’re not very optimistic about this. Keith Schembri has been given this fumbling, unconvincing performance of a man in a perpetual state of apoplectic delusion since February 2016. He’s never been credible, never more than yesterday, not since he was caught, to repeat the idiom, with his hand in the till. The public should have passed sentence in 2017. They didn’t. They should have passed sentence in 2022. They didn’t. Every time they don’t, the public behaves like a jury who acquits a criminal despite the overwhelming evidence against them, but they’d rather not convict because it’s easier that way.
The public cannot allow ennui, boredom, cowardice, indifference, callous and misguided self-interest, and partisan complicity to continue to blind them from this because they’re the victims of their own reluctance, whether they know it or not. Our constitution however provides for more. The transparency of a parliamentary inquiry is only there to apply moral pressure on the criminal justice system and if the proper constitutional mechanisms to punish crime do not at first work to give them a kick-start.
Robert Abela a few days ago waxed melodramatic about how long the inquiry into the death of Jean Paul Sofia, which started last December, is taking. He’s right (though he was saying it for the wrong reason). Can I complain that the Panama Papers inquiry, first asked for in July 2017, is still not completed? I know Keith Schembri doesn’t mind. Fuck him.