US issues travel ban on Keith Schembri, Konrad Mizzi for ‘corrupt acts’

Former minister Konrad Mizzi (left) and former OPM chief of staff Keith Schembri. File photos.

Sanctions issued over ‘significant corruption’, kickbacks while in office

Keith Schembri and Konrad Mizzi have both been slapped with a travel ban by the US due to their “involvement in significant corruption”. 

The sanctions against the Schembri, the former prime minister’s chief of staff and Mizzi, an ex Labour minister, were announced by the US State Department on Wednesday.  

“Today, the U.S. Department of State announces the public designation of former Maltese public officials Konrad Mizzi and Keith Schembri due to their involvement in significant corruption,” said US State Department spokesman Ned Price.

He said that Mizzi and Schembri had, in their official capacities, been involved in “corrupt acts that included using their political influence and official power for their personal benefit”.

“Specifically, there is credible information that 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.”

Their actions undermined rule of law in Malta and the public’s faith in the country’s government and democratic processes, the spokesman said. 

Who else has been sanctioned?

In addition to Mizzi and Schembri, the US is also designating their immediate family members: Mizzi’s wife, Sai Mizzi Liang, and his two minor children; Schembri’s wife, Josette Schembri Vella, his daughter Juliana Schembri Vella, and his minor child. 

This action renders both men and each of these members of their immediate families ineligible for entry into the United States.

What do the sanctions say? 

The US government announced that Mizzi and Schembri had been slapped with sanctions under Section 7031(c) of the US Foreign Operations and Related Programs Appropriations Act, 2021. 

These sanctions say that officials of non-US governments and their immediate family members “about whom the Secretary of State has credible information have been involved, directly or indirectly, in significant corruption, including corruption” shall be ineligible for entry into the United States.

Sanctions in the pipeline for ‘at least a year’

Malta Government sources have confirmed that the process to sanction Schembri and Mizzi began more than a year ago. 

The sources described the move as external pressure from the US following a perceived lack of court and police action on the island. 

“This happened because the US believes we are dragging our feet against corruption,” one high-level source told Times of Malta.  

‘A wonderful Christmas present for Malta’

Mizzi and Schembri’s fall from grace 

Times of Malta and Reuters had revealed Mizzi’s and Schembri plans in 2015 to receive up to €2 million per year from 17 Black, an offshore company owned by Yorgen Fenech. Fenech was a director of Electrogas power plant and is now awaiting trial for the 2017 assassination of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia. 

Schembri, once the most powerful unelected government official on the island, had served as chief of staff to former prime minister Joseph Muscat. 

He resigned in November 2019 after he was implicated in the assassination.

Keith Schembri (left) and Konrad Mizzi caught on camera in the Auberge de Castille in 2015. Photo: Ivan Martin

Schembri is currently in court over separate money laundering and corruption charges.  

Mizzi was a star minister in the Muscat administration and has, along with Schembri, been implicated in major corruption scandals stemming from the 2016 Panama Papers leak. 

He was ousted from cabinet and the government parliamentary group when Robert Abela replaced Muscat in the Auberge de Castille last year.   

‘A wonderful Christmas gift for Malta’

In a tweet on Wednesday afternoon Matthew Caruana Galizia, the son of the late journalist Daphne, welcomed the US action, thanking the State Department for its announcement. 

“What a wonderful Christmas gift for Malta,” he wrote.  

His brother Andrew tweeted that Schembri and Mizzi were two central characters in his mother’s work.

“It’s a stunning public statement that the US has lost all patience with the Maltese authorities,” he wrote.  

Country suffering to protect Mizzi, Schembri – PN 

In a statement on Wednesday afternoon, the Nationalist Party said the Labour government was tarnishing the country’s reputation.  

“This unprecedented development, that the US government has just announced international sanctions because of Konrad Mizzi and Keith Schembri’s corruption is confirmation that it had to be a country thousands of miles away to take action,” the PN said.  

The PN said there aren’t strong enough words to condemn Prime Minister Robert Abela’s decision to protect Schembri and Mizzi at the rest of the country’s expense.  

In another statement, ADPD said these people “have besmirched the country’s reputation”.

The party asked: “If the US State Department has enough information on corruption, kickbacks and money laundering involving Keith Schembri and Konrad Mizzi, is it possible that Malta’s Police Commissioner, Angelo Gafà, does not have sufficient evidence and information for these two persons that have done so much harm to our country and Malta’s governance system to be arraigned in court immediately?

“Is he not capable to use his executive powers for justice to prevail? Or do we need the Police Commissioner to be replaced?”

Have any Maltese been sanctioned before? 

These are not the first US sanctions against Maltese nationals. However, they are the first to be issued against public officials.  

Back in 2018, the US slapped sanctions on a number of Maltese nationals as part of a crackdown on a Libyan oil smuggling racket.

Darren Debono and three other Maltese are listed by the US Treasury in a new round of sanctions targeting oil smugglers in Libya aimed at blocking exploitation of natural resources that is driving instability.

The alleged smugglers were hit with sanctions that prohibit Americans from engaging with them and freezes any related property under US jurisdictions.

Times Malta