Nexia BT’s Brian Tonna has admitted that he “wasn’t pleased” when he found out who owned 17 Black – something which he said he discovered only through the media.
Tonna was testifying before parliament’s public accounts committee for a fourth time as the committee continued to discuss a report by the National Audit Office into the Electrogas power station deal.
Some questions this time focused on the company 17 Black – a once-secret company which was marked as one of the target clients of the Panama companies belonging to Keith Schembri and Konrad Mizzi before being outed as belonging to Yorgen Fenech.
“I didn’t know anything about them, what they were, or who owned them”, Tonna said when confronted about 17 Black and Macbridge – another similarly secret, since found to be connected to Enemalta’s Cheng Chen.
An email showed that Schembri and Mizzi’s Panama companies would receive €2 million – the equivalent of €5,000 per day – from the two companies.
Tonna said that the income figure was not named by Nexia – which was the company which opened Schembri and Mizzi’s Panama accounts – but was suggested by Mossack Fonseca in order to show banks that there would be significant turnover, hence making the chances of them opening a bank account for the companies more favourable.
It’s an explanation which the Opposition bench did not quite buy: “This is like a Netflix series”, committee chair Beppe Fenech Adami pointed out.
Upon telling Tonna that he did not believe him, Tonna brushed the remark off saying: “that’s your problem – I don’t care whether you believe me or not, what I care about is that the magistrate believes me”.
He continued by explaining that Nexia BT had suggested an income of €100,000 per year for the companies when presenting its application for a bank account, but that Mossack Fonseca had kept bumping this figure up to €2 million.
The parameters for opening that accounts were never reached, he pointed out, and the bank due diligence never even started.
“I only got to know who owned 17 Black from the media”, he said.
Asked what his reaction was to that news, Tonna said; “I wasn’t pleased. I wasn’t told that company is of someone who he [referring to Keith Schembri] knew. I was simply told that it was a company connected to gaming.”
Asked whether he had confronted Schembri about this, Tonna replied in the affirmative – but did not answer further questions after being stopped by his lawyer Stephen Tonna Lowell, who later rapped the PN MPs for asking direct questions about subjects which Tonna is facing criminal charges on.
This was not before, however, Tonna said that Konrad Mizzi “had nothing to do with” the situation pertaining to 17 Black.
MPs questioned how Tonna, who was ultimately on the Enemalta selection board for the new power station, had not asked what Konrad Mizzi’s interest was in opening an offshore company.
Tonna said however that he had not really known Mizzi before, and that he had treated him as a “walk-in client” who was introduced to him by a third party – purportedly Keith Schembri himself.
It was an at times tense sitting, with PL MP Glenn Bedingfield frequently observing that certain questions made by Opposition MPs were not within the remit of the committee – something which Fenech Adami shot down, noting that they were discussing the relationship between Nexia BT and the minister who engaged them to work on the Electrogas project in order to discern whether there were any conflicts of interest.
One especially tense moment led to Bedingfield to respond to an off-the-cuff remark not picked up by the committee’s microphones by telling Fenech Adami that he would “prefer to a chubby St. Thomas rather than a lying St. Thomas.”
It was only PN MP Ryan Callus who broke the tension somewhat by telling Bedingfield that he need not be offended as “last time you called me ugly” – a point to which Bedingfield replied: “I confirm”, to chuckles around the table.