Millions in Payments
Records obtained by reporters don’t just detail personal spending and luxury trips. They also show millions funneled to Tumuluri and a Pakistani man named Shaukat Ali, as well as Ali’s sons, through both Bluestone and Swiss intermediary Accutor AG.
Bluestone wired 5 million euros from its accounts to two United Arab Emirates companies called Mount Everest owned by Tumuluri and Ali, who is described as a VGH “consultant” by Tumuluri in his U.S. whistleblower complaint. Millions more were sent to Ali’s relatives or companies they owned, marked as “consultancy” or “loans.”
Ali told OCCRP that members of his family “worked for VGH as consultants or employees.” Via his lawyer, Tumuluri said “investors and shareholders invested close to $10 million into Bluestone” and that any payments to him “were for Bluestone-related ventures…(they) were not VGH funds.”
Bluestone also wired hundreds of thousands of euros to Accutor, a Swiss company owned by businessman Wasay Bhatti. Following Steward’s takeover, VGH (under its new name Steward Malta) sent around 6 million euros to several of Bhatti’s Swiss companies, including Accutor Consulting AG, between March 2019 and January 2020.
Steward International said that Accutor Consulting was “engaged…for legitimate business services.”
Reporters obtained partial financial records for Bhatti’s Swiss companies, covering October 2015 to January 2020.
According to the payment descriptions, the money was for payroll and consulting services. Because the financial records were not complete, journalists could not determine whether Bhatti’s companies had other sources of funds.
Between July and October 2018, Accutor AG sent about 173,000 euros to Shaukat Ali and his relatives. Following the Steward takeover, the Swiss company also paid 1.2 million euros to a law firm with descriptions referencing “RamTum.”
Ali told OCCRP that he was employed by Accutor as a “senior advisor” and received salary payments from the company. He added that records from Accutor “were never accurate, there was a lack of professionality and chaotic inaccuracies.”
Tumuluri’s lawyer said that after Steward took over the hospital contract it owed Tumuluri money under an agreement, and Tumuluri had Steward send the funds to Accutor at that time.
Bhatti told OCCRP that Tumuluri “had no role in Accutor…it was a simple client relationship.”
Two of Bhatti’s Swiss companies — Accutor Consulting and Spring XMedia AG — are now at the center of a corruption probe by Maltese authorities who are looking into payments to Muscat, the former prime minister, who stepped down in January 2020 but was in office when the hospital contract was awarded to VGH.
Muscat received 60,000 euros, in four 15,000-euro tranches, from Accutor Consulting and Spring XMedia, shortly after leaving office.
The payment to Muscat was based on a consultancy agreement, obtained by reporters, that was set to earn him 15,000 euros per month for 36 months. The payments appear to have stopped after just four months. A document attached to the contract says that Muscat would be paid for providing “consultancy services as senior advisor.”
Maltese investigators told OCCRP partner Times of Malta that they suspect a consultancy contract signed by Muscat in 2020 could have been used as a vehicle to disguise payments from the “fraudulent” hospitals deal. The investigators spoke on condition of anonymity since they were not officially allowed to comment, but their information was corroborated by official documents obtained by OCCRP.
Muscat denies this is the case, insisting the money paid to him was for legitimate work as a consultant. But OCCRP found the company that paid Muscat had close links to VGH: Accutor Consulting was called VGH Europe until January 2018 — just before Steward officially acquired VGH in Malta — when it changed its name.
People connected to VGH and Accutor confirmed that the companies had worked closely together. Tumuluri’s lawyer told OCCRP that Bluestone appointed Accutor to help it expand the VGH group into Europe. A former Accutor executive, who said he could not be named due to a related ongoing Swiss investigation, said VGH Europe formed part of plans to expand VGH’s presence in other parts of Europe. And Mark Pawley, a former director of VGH and Bluestone, confirmed this was the case, telling OCCRP that VGH Europe was set up as Tumuluri “made the move to Switzerland.”
A lone hospital bed frame in an abandoned room in St. Luke’s hospital.
Claims of Collusion
Both the original hospitals contract and the transfer of ownership of VGH have been met with claims of collusion, strongly refuted by the companies.
In a July 2020 report into the hospital concession, the Maltese national auditor pointed to a October 2014 memorandum of understanding between Malta’s economy minister and the investors behind Bluestone and VGH, as well as Shaukat Ali (whose name does not appear on VGH or Bluestone documents), that seems to lay the groundwork for the investors to win a hospital contract months before the public tender was announced.
Abandoned medical machinery reporters discovered in St. Luke’s hospital.
The national audit office report said the “relevance of [the memorandum of understanding] is paramount, for it predates the [public tender],” and “noted the significant overlap between” the people named on the document “and the eventual investors of the VGH.”
Ali told OCCRP the memorandum of understanding was “non-binding” and was “superseded” by another signed “a couple of months later” that did not include him or his relatives.
Via his lawyer, former VGH owner Tumuluri denied the allegation of collusion with officials and told OCCRP the memorandum of understanding — “which did not involve VGH” — was “non-binding” and was aimed at “exploring the opportunity” of an investment in Malta’s healthcare sector. The memorandum of understanding was terminated a few months later, and then VGH won the tender with a new submission, his lawyer said.
Despite the controversies that have dogged the hospitals project, Muscat was able to inaugurate one new medical school in November 2019, albeit two years past schedule.
It was one of the only deliverables the concessionaires made good on, but they outsourced it to Sicilian medical supplier-cum-construction company Sirimed — a firm that was mentioned in documents connected to two corruption investigations by prosecutors in Sicily, but which was never charged with any crime.
Maltese investigators are now examining payments to Sirimed, which received a total of 15 million euros from Steward between 2018 and 2020. Sirimed’s owner, Giuseppe Rifici, has since opened two companies in Malta: Demiris Ltd and Siriline Ltd. In the latter, he has partnered with Maltese businessman Ivan Vassallo, who is also a person of interest in the ongoing probe into the Sirimed payments.
In a statement, Steward said Sirimed was paid for its work on the project and that “in accordance with industry and banking standards, this was subject to a constant customary review.” Rifici and Vassallo’s lawyer did not respond to questions.
Separately, Tumuluri himself filed a complaint with U.S. authorities last month accusing Steward HealthCare of colluding with Maltese officials and VGH’s then-CEO, Armin Ernst, during the takeover of VGH in 2018.
Emails included in the complaint show Ernst — who left a job with Steward to become the CEO of VGH, and remained as the CEO when it was renamed Steward Malta — was personally involved in discussions with Maltese officials about the takeover of VGH by Steward. Via his lawyer, Tumuluri described Steward’s acquisition of VGH as a “hostile takeover,” but said he could not discuss the issues raised in his SEC whistleblower complaint because he could not comment on “any ongoing investigations.”
The exterior of St. Luke’s in January 2023.
Ernst declined to comment, but Steward and Maltese government officials angrily rejected Tumuluri’s allegations that the 2018 takeover involved collusion.
“I vehemently protest against these baseless allegations and false claims,” said Keith Schembri, the former chief of staff to Muscat, in a written statement.
Steward said the accusations were “entirely without merit.” The company has gone on the offensive since the February court ruling that annulled the hospitals contract, appealing the verdict and filing complaints against Malta at the European Court of Justice.
Alina Tsogoeva (OCCRP) and Simone Olivelli (IRPIMedia) contributed reporting. The Daphne Caruana Galizia Foundation supported the project with research and coordination of investigative work.
Research on this story was provided by OCCRP ID.
Data expertise was provided by OCCRP's Data Team.
Fact-checking was provided by the OCCRP Fact-Checking Desk.