Material on Deputy Prime Minister supplied by public relations firm likely to be contrived

02 August 2023

Two stories targeting the Deputy Prime Minister, Chris Fearne, are likely to be false - although the underlying issues with all involved remain. In the first story, Carmen Ciantar, a Labour-party insider who was appointed CEO of a state agency for health despite a lack of experience in the field, is alleged to have received bribes via a bank account in her daughter’s name in exchange for the granting of a Maltese passport to a Russian national. In the second story, Ciantar is alleged to have received further payments via an offshore company to influence decisions around a concession to operate private hospitals.

The Foundation was approached by a prominent journalist at a UK-based newspaper in early 2023, at a time when it was supporting an investigation into the Vitals-Steward concession. The journalist claimed to have a obtained a redacted photo of a banking transcript, from an unnamed public relations agent in London, that showed a payment of €3.2 million from a Viacheslav Rezchikov to Celine Camilleri Ciantar, Carmen Ciantar’s daughter, herself a government appointee. The transcript indicates that both the account used to send the payment and the account used to receive it were held at the Austrian branch of Liechtenstein’s national bank.

When contacted for comment, Liechtensteinische Landesbank’s head of legal, Martin Lukas, stated that the payment transcript is a “forgery”.

In the weeks prior to publication of the Foundation and its partners’ investigation into the hospitals concession, the Foundation was approached by a second person from the UK, a former journalist at a well-known tabloid newspaper. This person supplied a briefing note that he said was drafted by a public relations firm, alleging that Rezchikov made the payment to Carmen Ciantar via her daughter on behalf of his business partner, Leonid Levitin, as an illicit payment in exchange for a Maltese passport.

The briefing note has a logical premise. Levitin should have never been granted Maltese citizenship as he is a politically exposed person whose brother, Igor Levitin, works directly for Putin, including most recently to secure weapons for Russia from Iran. Details check out if given some leeway: while the company named on the transcript - SLIG Business Solutions GmbH - does not exist in Austria, a similarly named one, SLIG GmbH, does exist and did belong to Rezchikov until it was dissolved months before the payment to Camilleri Ciantar is supposed to have been made. The address on the supposed transcript of the alleged payment to Camilleri Ciantar is occupied by a law firm that has incorporated various companies and foundations connected to Rezchikov. The firm did not respond to a request for comment.

While the Foundation was working to verify the material supplied by the former journalist, he stated that the PR firm which provided it to him was insistent on immediate publication and was not willing to wait for verification. When asked to provide further supporting material, the firm - speaking via the former journalist - refused. The firm was aware of the planned publication date for the joint investigation with OCCRP, the Times of Malta and The Shift News, and was therefore likely engaged by one of the individuals that our media partners contacted for comment ahead of publication. A few days before publication, the firm passed on details of a second allegation - which the Foundation received in messages from the former journalist - of payments to Carmen Ciantar via banks in Dubai and Switzerland.

Contacted for comment, Rezchikov confirmed that the bank account numbers on the transcript supplied by the PR firm were indeed controlled by him but that the transcript is “entirely fabricated” and that “the actions described in the [article] have never been undertaken by me”. Asked for comment on the allegation that Rezchikov transferred payments to Ciantar, Fearne stated that he has never communicated with Rezchikov.

The PR firm alleged in its briefing note that the then head of the government’s citizenship sales scheme, Jonathan Cardona, “used his official IIP email address to engage with Rezchikov”. When asked if he had any communication with Rezchikov regarding Levitin’s purchase of Maltese citizenship, Jonathan Cardona stated: “I do not recall any exchanges in any form with the two individuals mentioned in your email.”

A news article that appeared in a Pakistani newspaper alleged further payments, for the benefit of Carmen Ciantar, via a bank in Switzerland, Bordier & Cie. In response to a request for comment from the Foundation, the bank’s head of communications, Christophe Leu, stated: “After verification and to the best of our knowledge, Bordier & Cie SCmA is neither concerned nor involved in this case.”

The journalist and former journalist who separately contacted the Foundation with the transcript and briefing note refused to disclose the name of the public relations firm behind the supplied material.