Prime Minister Joseph Muscat’s former chief of staff, Keith Schembri, has been at the centre of the political crisis which has engulfed Malta over the past few weeks.
Once held as a key member of the Muscat government by those in the Labour camp, discourse surrounding Schembri has taken a marked shift away from its previously complimentary tone.
Schembri had long been praised by members of both the government and the Labour Party, who consistently supported him following the Panama Papers revelations.
Back then, Prime Minister Muscat claimed not to believe many of the “incorrect things” reported about Schembri, adding that his chief of staff had been “demonised”. He argued that there was no need for Schembri to resign. “He enjoys my trust,” the prime minister insisted.
The love, it appears, was mutual. A day before the 2017 general election, Keith Schembri described Muscat as his “best friend”. He said that he had offered his resignation on several occasions, but the prime minister had urged him to stay on as what they were doing for the country was important.
Even when Tumas Group CEO and Electrogas shareholder and director Yorgen Fenech was revealed to be the owner of the Dubai-based company 17 Black – the target client for Panamanian companies set up by Schembri and former Minister Konrad Mizzi – Muscat stood by his chief of staff.
“Who told you he’s being investigated?” Muscat said when asked by the press whether Schembri should resign given that a criminal investigation was underway.
“The inquiry is into 17 Black not Keith Schembri,” he said before reaffirming his faith in Schembri.
Such protection continued until the day of his resignation.
“He told me that he will be resigning as my chief of staff today so that the government can start moving forward and continue its work in a more serene manner.
“I thank Keith for the work he has done for the government over the past few years. I believe he has played a crucial role. I thank him for shouldering this burden on his part.
“I take responsibility for the fact that I have kept him on as my chief of staff. He has now decided to move on. He had already signalled to me that he wanted to move on.”
That is how Muscat announced his chief of staff’s resignation, just before Schembri was arrested and interrogated in connection with the investigation into the assassination of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia.
His choice of words – especially his claim that Schembri had “moved on” – was criticised as an attempt to put a positive spin on the resignation. Critics – including Leader of the Opposition Adrian Delia – noted that “moved on” did not accurately describe Schembri’s resignation amid a political crisis and his arrest in connection to the high-profile murder.
When a delegation from the European Parliament was dispatched to Malta to probe the government’s handling of the murder investigation, the tone began to change, however.
Gone was the praise for Schembri’s work, with Muscat himself telling the MEPs that he felt “betrayed” by his former chief of staff – the first time he had spoken negatively of his former right-hand man.
The prime minister was not alone; Justice Minister Owen Bonnici later said that he also felt personally betrayed by Schembri. “You feel betrayed by any person who lets you down and who misuses or abuses your trust,” he told journalists.
Muscat excluded the possibility of recruiting Schembri again and the prospect of this happening is all the more remote now that the prime minister has announced his resignation in January. However, with OPM official Neville Gafa repeatedly seen at Schembri’s residence, questions have been raised as to whether there remains some sort of connection between Schembri and the prime minister’s office.
The sudden change in discourse appears to have come too late, however, with the aforementioned EP delegation emerging from their meeting with Muscat unimpressed. Their concerns had not been allayed, they said following the meeting. The growing number of people who have taken to streets also seem to think that it’s too little, and definitely too late.