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Malta Academic in Trump Probe Has History of Vanishing Acts

An Associated Press investigation of Joseph Mifsud's career has uncovered an international trail of mismanagement and financial problems stretching over a decade

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    Malta Academic in Trump Probe Has History of Vanishing Acts
    Juan Manuel Herrera/AP, File
    This Nov. 12, 2014, photo made available by the Organization of American States shows Maltese academic Joseph Mifsud during a meeting in Washington. It was Mifsud who allegedly dropped the first hint that the Russians were interfering into the 2016 U.S. presidential election and he has not been seen publicly for nearly a year. An Associated Press investigation published Monday, Oct. 22, 2018, shows it isn’t the first time Mifsud has gone to ground.

    It was her last day of class and Leida Ruvina was getting suspicious.

    The Albanian student had just finished the first module in what was purported to be a doctoral program co-administered by Slovenia's Euro-Mediterranean University, but the place didn't look like much of a university.

    It didn't have a campus; the room she was sitting in had been rented from a local tourism school in the Slovenian spa town of Portoroz. She didn't have a matriculation number, the code used by educational institutions to track students' progress. And the French translation of "Euro-Mediterranean" in the university's seal was misspelled.

    She raised her hand to ask the university's president what was going on. Joseph Mifsud, a paunchy middle-aged administrator with an easy manner and a graying widow's peak, assured Ruvina that everything was in order, complimented her on her English and offered to advise her on her dissertation.

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    "If you want, I can be your mentor," she recalled him telling her.

    Mifsud, however, was in no position to be anyone's mentor. The Ph.D. program was bogus and Mifsud would soon be ousted in a scandal.

    Ruvina eventually got a refund for the two weeks she spent at the university in 2012 and began her dissertation elsewhere. Mifsud has since shot to international prominence as a lynchpin of the investigation into Donald Trump's presidential campaign and its ties to the Russian government.

    A court document made public last year by U.S. prosecutors alleged that it was Mifsud who dropped the first hint of the hacking that rocked the 2016 U.S. election when he met Trump adviser George Papadopoulos on April 26, 2016, in London and told him the Kremlin had "thousands of emails" on his Democratic presidential rival, Hillary Clinton.

    An Associated Press investigation of Mifsud's career has uncovered an international trail of mismanagement and financial problems stretching over a decade. It doesn't answer the key question of whether Mifsud was acting on behalf of Russian interests — wittingly or otherwise — when he allegedly passed the tip to the Trump campaign team, but it does sketch out a bizarre academic career punctuated by scandals and disappearing acts.

    ___

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    When Mifsud's name first surfaced in connection with U.S. special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election, Mifsud denied discussing emails with Papadopoulos or having any connection to Russia. He then fell off the map for nearly a year, leading some to speculate he might be dead.

    Mifsud's Swiss-German lawyer, Stephan Roh, has recently assured the AP that Mifsud is alive and has disputed almost all the allegations against him, saying via email that the 58-year-old hadn't committed any crime and that the claims leveled against him are either old, unsubstantiated or consist of what he described as "defamatory departing music."

    Asked about the Albanian student's story, for example, which the AP corroborated using contemporaneous emails, certificates and a document bearing Mifsud's signature, Roh said her claim "seems not plausible."

    "You forget about many positive things about Prof Mifsud," Roh said. "My suspicion is that this may be on purpose."

    Roh said he last heard from his client earlier this month through an intermediary he refused to identify and last saw him face-to-face in May.

    His office sent the AP a photograph of the Maltese academic, sporting three-day stubble and seated across a signed power of attorney document. The photograph also appears to show a copy of the Democratic National Committee lawsuit against Trump and the Russian government, in which Mifsud is named as a co-defendant, and the May 17 edition of Zurichsee-Zeitung, a Swiss-German newspaper. Metadata embedded in the picture, including geographic coordinates and altitude data, suggest it was taken with an iPhone at Roh's office in the Swiss city of Zurich on May 21. Roh said he only provided the image to prove he was Mifsud's attorney and asked the AP not to publish it.

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    The cloak-and-dagger surrounding Mifsud's whereabouts has invited all manner of dark theories, some of them nurtured by Roh himself. Earlier this year, Roh co-wrote and self-published a 284-page book speculating that both Mifsud and Papadopoulos were pawns of the Western intelligence community and had been enlisted in what Roh described as a conspiracy to create the appearance that the Trump campaign had cooperated with the Russian government.

    Mifsud is hiding "under instruction of the intelligence agencies," Roh claimed, saying that unidentified spies were trying to keep Mifsud quiet as they worked to discredit Trump.

    In fact, Mifsud's vanishing act is not out of character.

    The AP has documented at least three previous efforts by Mifsud to drop out of the public eye after being caught up in controversies. Laris Gaiser, a Slovenian crisis consultant who was brought in to investigate Mifsud's tenure at the Euro-Mediterranean University, said that going off the grid is Mifsud's modus operandi.

    "Disappearing for him is the most perfect way to survive," Gaiser said.

    ___

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    Mifsud studied education in Italy and Northern Ireland before returning to his native Malta in the 1990s, just as the tiny Mediterranean nation was turning toward the European Union. In 2000, he was appointed general manager of the University of Malta's European Unit, which juggled grants and foreign exchange programs, eventually becoming its director.

    Many of those who crossed paths with him were left unimpressed.

    Matthew Caruana Galizia, the son of slain investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, was one of 15 participants at a 2006 university summer class taught in part by Mifsud. He said the academic floundered through his lecture and had "no idea what he was talking about."

    "He spent the whole time trying to impress us and was coming off as a complete charlatan," Caruana Galizia said.

    One of Mifsud's former deputies said Mifsud was a name-dropping networker focused on jockeying for funding and taking work trips abroad.

    "He was hooked on travel," said Joseph Grech, who described working for Mifsud as the most stressful experience of his life.

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    Grech called his ex-boss a "hawwadi," a Maltese word roughly meaning "intriguer."

    "He's in the gray zone," said Grech. "He fits perfectly in this gray zone of Trump and hackers."

    In 2006, a new administration took office and immediately found issues with Mifsud's management. Among other problems, officials struggled to understand how Mifsud had managed his unit's finances, according to two former colleagues who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss confidential university business.

    An auditor from PricewaterhouseCoopers was brought in to make sense of the situation, writing Mifsud a series of questions about how the money had been spent, the ex-colleagues said.

    Mifsud, who had gone on loan to Malta's Foreign Office in the meanwhile, didn't return repeated messages requesting clarification. Eventually, the university lost patience with the missing academic and wrote to him on Nov. 15, 2007, threatening to terminate his job.

    It was only the following month that Mifsud responded — to tell the university he was quitting.

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    Roh said the University of Malta allegations stemmed from Mifsud's decision to refocus his work with a university in Rome, a move Roh said "was not appreciated." He offered no comment on hints that Mifsud's personal finances were falling into disarray around the same time. Maltese court documents show that, on April 9, 2008, the Bank of Valetta won an order garnishing Mifsud's wages over an unpaid 1,780 euro debt.

    ___

    As Mifsud burned his bridges in Malta, he was laying the foundations for a new career in Slovenia.

    It was in this small ex-Yugoslav republic that officials had set up the Euro-Mediterranean University , soon adopted by the 43-nation Union for the Mediterranean as the academic prong of a wider effort to foster stability, prosperity and cultural exchanges across the Mediterranean Sea. Mifsud was picked to be its first president in November 2008.

    In its first few years, the lightly resourced university limped along in relative obscurity. Glossy annual reports ran more than 100 pages filled with buzzwordy aspirations of "raising awareness of multiethnic, multicultural and multi-religious diversity of the Euro-Mediterranean," but there were no full-time students and there was little education beyond summer classes.

    When a new government took office in Slovenia in 2012, officials asked Gaiser, the consultant, to look into the situation. Gaiser said in a telephone interview that Mifsud's personal accounts were indecipherable. As the university languished, its president had flown around the world, striking more than 200 cooperation agreements with universities "from Rabat to Moscow."

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    "He was a traveling machine," Gaiser said.

    Mifsud was forced to resign, according to both Gaiser and Abdelhamid ElZoheiry, the Euro-Mediterranean University's current president. They said the university initially agreed to pay him through the summer as long as he produced a handover, but that never happened.

    University board minutes show that Mifsud instead skipped town, saddling the institution with about 30,000 euros worth of "allegedly ineligible costs," including telephone bills charged to the university's Visa card. In a replay of his disappearing act at the University of Malta several years earlier, Mifsud suddenly became unreachable. The minutes said that letters from the Euro-Mediterranean University demanding an explanation for his spending — sent to addresses in London, Malta and Rome — went unanswered.

    A 2013 Slovenian government report was scathing about Mifsud's performance, saying his administration had left the university "in an unfavorable financial, personnel and organizational condition" and with "no reputation, either at home or abroad."

    Roh insisted Mifsud's expenses "may have been rightful" and emphasized that the matter never went to a trial.

    In fact, EMUNI officials discussed flagging Mifsud to OLAF, the European Anti-Fraud Office, according to an email seen by the AP. ElZoheiry said the management board eventually calculated that it wasn't worth pursuing Mifsud in court.

    "We would have spent much more than 30,000 euros in legal fees," ElZoheiry said.

    ___

    As ElZoheiry and others worked to turn their university around, Mifsud turned toward London, where he would eventually intersect with Papadopoulos, the Trump campaign aide.

    Mifsud was brought on to the now-defunct London Academy of Diplomacy. It was via his Russian personal assistant there that Mifsud got in touch with the director of the Moscow Academy of Diplomacy, Evgeny Bazhanov, and Russian International Affairs Council representative Ivan Timofeev, according to a copy of the assistant's CV still posted to LinkedIn.

    In early 2016, Mifsud would introduce Papadopoulos to Timofeev and the latter two would go on to speak for months about potentially arranging a trip by candidate Trump to Moscow. Those were among the conversations that Papadopoulos tried and failed to misrepresent to the FBI, eventually earning the former campaign staffer a two week prison sentence.

    Timofeev has repeatedly declined to discuss Papadopoulos when quizzed about him by the AP, but in June he told CNN that the Trump adviser was disorganized and unprofessional and that the conversations between the two went nowhere.

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    Mifsud doesn't appear to have behaved any more professionally in Russia himself.

    He vanished without explanation from a venture he helped set up between Moscow State University and another university in Rome in late 2016, according to Moscow State academic Yury Sayamov, who said that email addresses for Mifsud and his deputies at the London Academy of Diplomacy suddenly stopped working and phone calls went unanswered.

    Roh insists that Mifsud was in touch with Sayamov into 2017. In any case, the Russian academic remembers Mifsud fondly.

    "If we could continue professional contacts with him, we would," Sayamov said. "He was a communicative, pleasant person."

    ___

    The AP's investigation into Mifsud began in August, when a reporter traveled to Malta in a vain attempt to locate the academic.

    Others had tried before. Last year, two separate Italian police forces failed to find Mifsud in relation to yet another university funding scandal in Sicily, according to Italian court records . Mifsud was a no-show at his trial in the Sicilian port city of Palermo, where he was last month ordered to hand back more than 49,000 euros ($56,700) in overpayments.

    Maltese politicians who once smiled for pictures with Mifsud now barely seem to remember him. Roh said in his book that former associates were treating the academic "as a plague victim."

    Even Mifsud's family is saying nothing.

    When the AP visited Mifsud's old address in the Maltese town of Swieqi on Aug. 13, his wife Janet appeared at the balcony — only to retreat inside when she realized a reporter was at the door.

    "I have no intention of ever commenting on this matter," she said in an email the next day. Twenty minutes later, the Mifsuds' adult daughter, Giulia, sent the AP an almost identical message.

    Janet Mifsud has filed for divorce, according to Maltese court records seen by the AP. Few details were provided and Janet's lawyer, Carmelo Mifsud Bonnici, hung up when called for clarification. Roh said in his email that the couple had already been separated for "many, many years," that they had not seen one another in a long time and that Joseph "is a single man."

    The filing did suggest Janet Mifsud hasn't heard from her husband in a while. When the AP visited the London address the divorce court document gave for Joseph Mifsud — a brick apartment building in the capital's prosperous Pimlico neighborhood — the man who answered the door said he had been living there for three years and had never seen or heard of the academic.

    ___

    Mifsud's disappearance contrasts with the media offensives undertaken by many others in the orbit of the special counsel's investigation into Russian interference. Papadopoulos and his wife Simona Mangiante, in particular, post constantly to Twitter, alleging that Mifsud is part of a convoluted conspiracy-within-a-conspiracy — a Western intelligence asset masquerading as a Russian intelligence asset to fake evidence that the Trump campaign colluded with the Kremlin.

    Roh makes even more unverified claims. His book describes Mifsud as being "very close" not just to Britain's MI6 but to the Italian secret services and maybe other Western services besides. The book claims Mifsud had been taking orders from unidentified people with "strong ties to the Obama Administration" and that Papadopoulos was "most probably" a secret agent planted in the Trump campaign — a charge Papadopoulos called "fantasy."

    But there is one theory about Mifsud that Roh, who has a Russian wife and Russian business ties, is utterly unwilling to entertain.

    "He is certainly not a Russian spy," Roh writes. In one email to the AP, he insisted that this story discuss Mifsud's "clear and evidenced Western Intelligence role" and threatened legal action if Mifsud were described as "a Russian spy, asset, cut-out etc."

    Many of those who have interacted with Mifsud laugh off the idea that he could have ever been spy or an asset of any kind.

    Gaiser, the Slovenian consultant, said Mifsud was too incompetent to play any significant role in whatever machinations are purported to have happened between the Trump campaign and the Russian government.

    "I do not believe he's the real connection to any real scandal. I'm closer to Melania Trump than he is to Putin," Gaiser said, referring to the first lady's Slovenian background. "If they're trying to impeach the most important president in the world with Mifsud, then they have nothing."

    But Ruvina, the Albanian student who Mifsud once offered to mentor, isn't so sure.

    She described Mifsud as a "common, greedy person" who had "the talent of not having a visible talent." She didn't know that Mifsud had been caught up in the U.S. special counsel's investigation until the AP told her, but she said she wasn't surprised at his alleged role.

    "It's always the common guys that are used to play these parts," she said.

    ___

    Angela Charlton in Moscow and Chris Mangion in Malta contributed to this report. Documents obtained by AP about Joseph Mifsud here.