Nexia BT’s Brian Tonna remained silent as he faced the parliament’s Public Accounts Committee as it continued to investigate the Electrogas power station deal.
The committee meeting focused on the Auditor General’s report titled “An investigation of Matters relating to the contracts awarded to Electrogas Malta Ltd by Enemalta Corporation”.
The report was critical of how the project was evaluated, its due diligence, and the “risky” and “unprecedented” €360 million state guarantee given to the Electrogas consortium.
The Public Accounts Committee had already heard about how the government would need to pay some €417 million to terminate its contract with Electrogas.
Tonna – who is currently out on bail after being charged with money laundering along with 10 others, including former OPM chief of staff Keith Schembri – sat on Enemalta’s selection committee along with three other Nexia employees.
He is also linked to the Panama Papers scandal, which has in turn been linked with the project through Yorgen Fenech, the former Electrogas director and shareholder who is now accused of masterminding the murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia.
According to an e-mail found in the Panama Papers, Keith Schembri and then-Energy Minister Konrad Mizzi were set to receive up to $2 million from Fenech’s Dubai-based company 17 Black. The money was to be wired through Schembri and Mizzi’s Panama companies, which Tonna had set up.
Brian Tonna was being represented by lawyer Stephen Tonna Lowell, who told the committee that he had advised his client not to answer any questions as he is facing investigation on this subject. PN MP Beppe Fenech Adami, who chairs this committee, stated that neither he nor the public is aware of any criminal proceedings open on Electrogas specifically.
Tonna Lowell stated that from questions asked by a magisterial inquiry, Tonna may be considered a suspect in relation to criminal investigations into Electrogas.
“I have given him this advice [to remain silent] because it seems he is a suspect – so we are asking that he be allowed to exercise his right to silence”, Tonna Lowell continued.
“We don’t think he needs to be a suspect, but we are taking precautions accordingly”, the lawyer said.
PN MPs Karol Aquilina and Ryan Callus fired off several questions on Brian Tonna’s professional background, his involvement with Nexia BT, his involvement in the Electrogas project, whether he met Joseph Muscat or Keith Schembri prior to the 2013 election or had any meetings at the PL HQ before the said election, and other questions.
For every question asked, Tonna simply answered “I choose not to answer”.
Tonna Lowell, Brian Tonna’s lawyer, made a remark after the grilling finished in order to clarify his client’s position. “Let us not forget that the witness is accused of money laundering and the Attorney General doesn’t want to tell us what the predicate offence is – which is also why he is exercising his right to silence,” the lawyer said.
Fenech Adami remarked that at this stage, given that Tonna has refused to reply to any question despite them not being linked to the accusations he faces in court, he feels that the matter should be referred to the Speaker for direction and for a ruling. Fenech Adami said that he felt that Tonna has no grounds not to answer the questions which do not incriminate him.
He noted that most, if not all, questions were related to the subject of Electrogas, and none were related to proceedings on the Times of Malta printing press or the passport graft scandal, which Tonna is facing charges in court on.
The government’s representatives agreed with Fenech Adami in going to the Speaker for direction before asking their own questions to the witness.
15:15: And with that, the matter is referred to the Speaker and the committee sitting ends.
Speaker Anglu Farrugia will deliver a ruling on the matter in Parliament in due course. A summary of today’s proceedings will follow shortly.
Thank you for following.
15:13: The governemnt’s representatives agrees with Fenech Adami – maybe a first, that – in going to the Speaker for direction before asking their own questions to the witness.
Fenech Adami says that he feels that Tonna has no grounds not to answer the questions which do not incriminate him.
He asks for the government MPs to elaborate on this position in this regard – Clayton Bartolo says that it’s not a matter of opinion or not, but that it is now for the Speaker to decide on the matter.
15:09: Fenech Adami begins to make a suggestion, given Tonna’s silence.
Tonna Lowell makes a remark first: “Let us not forget that the witness is accused of money laundering and the Attorney General doesn’t want to tell us what the predicate offence is – which is also why he is exercising his right to silence.”
Fenech Adami continues, saying that at this stage given that Tonna has refused to reply to any question irrelevant of its nature, he feels that the matter should be referred to the Speaker for direction and for a ruling.
He notes that most, if not all, questions were related to the subject, and none were related to proceedings on the Times of Malta printing press or the passport graft scandal, which Tonna is facing charges in court on.
Tonna Lowell observes that there were questions on Keith Schembri. Fenech Adami says he doesn’t remember any such questions.
“He was definitely mentioned – he’s your favourite subject”, Bedingfield remarks – a remark which Fenech Adami ignores as the discussion continues.
15:05: Questions move on to the state’s massive bank guarantee granted to Electrogas. Callus asks whether the company would have folded had it not been for the guarantee. He asks what the banking process was for this guarantee and whether he was involved. Callus asks how much he was paid to do this work.
Tonna doesn’t answer, and Callus ends his questioning there.
15:00: Callus asks what the ties are between Egrant and Electrogas. He asks what Tonna’s involvement in Enemalta’s Montenegro wind-farm project was. He asks what he knows about Macbridge and whether there were any ties between Macbridge and Egrant.
Tonna is still insistent on not answering.
“Where did you know Konrad Mizzi?”, Callus asks.
“Your colleague already asked me”, Tonna says in a change to his looped tune – before reverting to saying “I choose not to answer.”
14:56: Callus continues his questioning, asking now about a cost-benefit analysis which Nexia BT did for the power station. The questions are getting a bit longer now, but Tonna still isn’t answering anything.
The Labour MPs meanwhile have looked up from their phones. Bedingfield points out a mistake in one of Callus’ questions – Callus waves it off as “a detail.”
The questions are centered on the analysis which ultimately led to the gas supply for the power station being offshore.
14:50: Aquilina concludes his questioning – Fenech Adami asks a single question on Tonna and his presence on the selection board. Tonna doesn’t answer that either.
PN MP Ryan Callus now starts his own questioning, asking Tonna about the same board, and who had appointed him to that board.
Tonna remains unmoved.
The Labour MPs meanwhile are similarly unmoved by the ongoing questioning – they’re focused on their mobile phones instead.
14:48: Aquilina asks whether Tonna knows who owns the Panama company Egrant, and for whom Tonna had founded it.
Tonna doesn’t answer.
A small pause – prompting someone to think the questions are done. “No no, I’ve got more”, Aquilina says.
He reels off questions about whether Tonna has business interests in China and whether he has any ties with the Chinese government. He asks for documentation and invoices issued to Electrogas among more questions.
“Can you explain to us why you are not answering?”, Aquilina asks. He is getting somewhat furstrated, although his tone and demeanour don’t necessarily betray that. Tonna, slightly caught off guard, says that he’s already explained why.
14:44: Aquilina asks more questions, now related to whether Tonna had a conflict of interest in being on the selection board, on whether he attended meetings abroad, and whether he had any ties to Cheng Chen [recently revealed to be behind the secret company Macbridge].
Each time, Tonna doesn’t answer.
Aquilina continues with the questions – punctuating his Electrogas-related monologue with a question on where Tonna went to school – something which Tonna, with a chuckle, doesn’t answer either.
14:39: Aquilina continues: he asks about Brian Tonna having an office at the Office of the Prime Minister, whether he has business relationships with Konrad Mizzi, Joseph Muscat, or Keith Schembri, whether he is the auditor for any of the companies involved in the Electrogas consortium, and what his relationship with Konrad Mizzi was.
Tonna isn’t budging: he repeats “I choose not to answer” after each question.
14:37: Aquilina fires off a raft of questions on Tonna’s professional background, his involvement with Nexia BT, his involvement in the Electrogas project, and whether he met Joseph Muscat or Keith Schembri prior to the 2013 election or had any meetings at the PL HQ before the said election.
Tonna doesn’t answer anything.
Fenech Adami asks on what basis he is choosing not to answer – whether it is because he would incriminate himself or because there are criminal proceedings against him.
Tonna Lowell answers on behalf of his client: “On the basis of his right to silence.”
14:34: Aquilina asks Tonna for a general background of his professional qualifications and occupation. Tonna says that he chooses not to answer. This is likely going to be the pattern for the rest of this sitting.
14:33: Regardless, Tonna is administered the oath, and Aquilina begins asking the questions.
14:32: “Tonna has his rights and in no way do we want to breach them. But we have a duty and obligation to do our jobs”, Aquilina says as he states that he will ask his questions even if Tonna doesn’t answer any of them.
The Labour side of the room meanwhile seem to favour the questions not being asked, given that Tonna has expressed his intention not to answer. Tourism Minister Clayton Bartolo has asked for a copy of the case which Tonna Lowell has cited before continuing – something Fenech Adami is arguing against.
14:28: The legal wrangling on whether Tonna should testify is continuing. Fenech Adami is quoting one constitutional court sentence which would allow Tonna to testify, while Tonna Lowell is quoting another case which states the opposite.
14:25: “He can choose not to testify where he might incriminate himself – not where he can’t”, Fenech Adami says.
14:23: The committee now discusses how to proceed. PN MP Karol Aquilina suggests that the questions are asked anyway, and Tonna answers what he sees fit. PL Whip Glen Bedingfield says that if the witness has said he will not answer questions, then for now the board should discuss how to proceed rather than asking the questions. Fenech Adami notes that past rulings from the Speaker suggest that there is no reason as to why Tonna should not answer questions, because there are no criminal proceedings related to the Electrogas deal ongoing. The fact that questions were asked does not mean that criminal proceedings are open, he says.
14:19: Tonna Lowell states that from questions asked by a magisterial inquiry, Tonna may be considered a suspect in relation to criminal investigations into Electrogas.
“I have given him this advice [to remain silent] because it seems he is a suspect – so we are asking that he be allowed to exercise his right to silence”, Tonna Lowell continues.
“We don’t think he needs to be a suspect, but we are taking precautions accordingly”, the lawyer continues.
14:16: Brian Tonna is being represented by lawyer Stephen Tonna Lowell, who has told the committee that he has advised his client not to answer any questions as he is facing investigation on this subject. PN MP Beppe Fenech Adami, who chairs this committee, states that he nor the public is not aware of any criminal proceedings open on Electrogas specifically.
14:14: Good afternoon – we are set to get underway in Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee, with Brian Tonna present.