Top Maltese officials under US sanction for corruption

The US State Department has placed two top Maltese officials under sanction, banning them and their immediate family members from traveling to the United States.

An official at the US embassy in Malta confirmed that former Energy Minister Konrad Mizzi and Keith Schembri, former chief of staff to the prime minister, were placed on the global list of offenders due to “credible information” the two were “involved in corrupt acts that included using their political influence and official power for personal benefit”.

The embassy wouldn’t comment on whether disgraced former prime minister Joseph Muscat is on the State Department’s radar for sanctions of his own.

The travel ban was made under Section 7031(c) of the Department of State, Foreign Operations and Related Program Appropriations Act, which the embassy explained was enacted to “allow the United States to promote accountability and to disrupt and deter future abuse.”

The list includes over 149 public officials and their immediate families from countries like Albania, Zimbabwe, Venezuela, and Saudi Arabia, where government officials were linked to the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

The official statement announcing the Maltese sanctions referenced the Electrogas power station deal that journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia was investigating when she was killed with a massive car bomb. It is this deal that is linked to her assassination by a car bomb on 16 October 2017. 

“Mizzi and Schembri were involved in a corrupt scheme that entailed the award of a government contract for the construction of a power plant and related services in exchange for kickbacks and bribes,” the US embassy said in a statement. 

“The United States is committed to promoting accountability for those involved in significant corruption and will continue to use all tools available to combat corruption globally,” they said, warning, “we continue to monitor investigations into corruption in Malta closely.”

The public inquiry board into the journalist’s assassination had also flagged Caruana Galizia’s work on the Electrogas deal as a crucial turning point in the plot to have her killed. The board argued that the journalist’s knowledge of the ownership of 17 Black, an offshore company that was set to award kickbacks to offshore companies owned by Mizzi and Schembri, would have put the future of the deal in doubt.

Konrad Mizzi with the current energy minister, Miriam Dalli, who served as his consultant at the time of the corrupt energy deal

A former diplomat consulted by The Shift described the travel ban as “a rare rebuke of an otherwise friendly country”.

“The State Department doesn’t sanction just anyone who is suspected of significant acts of corruption,” he said. “It only does this when the prospects of domestic prosecution are weak. This is why we only read about cases from countries with high rates of impunity.”

The message being sent is that the US has lost patience with Malta’s investigations into these extremely serious cases of corruption, and they expect results.

The former diplomat pointed out that, should Maltese police fail to act, an American connection to a corrupt hospitals deal orchestrated by Konrad Mizzi may enable charges to be filed in the United States under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA), where bribing foreign officials comes with prison terms and fines of up to $21,663 per violation.

The US was involved in the earliest stages of the Caruana Galizia murder investigation. sending technical experts to help Maltese police trace the mobile phones used to trigger the car bomb, and reconstructing the movements of the hitmen in the days leading up to the explosion.

They offered to help with investigations again in 2019, posting a statement on the second anniversary of Caruana Galizia’s death, saying, “It is not too late for Malta to bring Daphne’s killer to justice in a credible manner.”

Their comment on the 19 bomb attacks in the country since 2010 — “too many remained unsolved” — suggested they had something concrete to offer, but former prime minister Joseph Muscat turned them down, saying he had full faith in Maltese investigators. 

He was the only one who did, and observers are asking themselves why. Muscat’s hand-picked police commissioner, the inept Lawrence Cutajar, is now being investigated for “possible collusion” related to leaks in the murder investigation.

Little progress has been made since the arrest of the hitmen in December 2017, and the November 2019 arrest of accused mastermind Yorgen Fenech. The compilation of evidence in the cases has dragged on for years, and none of the trials have even begun. No politician named in court testimony in connection with the assassination has been charged, despite a pattern of arrests and questioning.

Two years after Malta refused the American offer of help, exasperation was obvious in the embassy’s next statement. On October 2021, the fourth anniversary of the journalist’s death, they called for “a thorough, transparent, timely, and credible conclusion to the investigations into the murder.”

International observers following the case have also lost patience with the glacial pace of the country’s legal system, and with the impunity that has made high-level government officials untouchable. But while Malta may not be moved by the public outrage of press freedom groups or votes of condemnation in the European Parliament, running afoul of the US justice system represents a higher level of threat.

This latest escalation of American pressure on Malta was welcome news for the family of the slain journalist, who faced another Christmas without their beloved mother, wife and sister, and another year without justice.

Matthew Caruana Galizia described it as “a wonderful Christmas gift for Malta”, while his brother Andrew said it was “a stunning public statement that the US has lost all patience with the Maltese authorities”.

Prime Minister Robert Abela must now decide whether he’s more afraid of American censure or of his own predecessor. The fact that he owes his job to Joseph Muscat, and was the disgraced former prime minister’s legal advisor at the time the alleged corruption took place could imply that Abela’s unwillingness to act may be due to his own involvement in it.

The world is watching, and the world expects action, but will the police commissioner, and the government, get the message? 

The following project is weekly Maltese Roundups prepared by The Shift News (Malta) offering the latest news in the Daphne Caruana Galizia case.