In Malta, a Knock on the Door Brings a Lead to a Story

From a Times Insider column by Ryan Mac headlined “In Malta, a Knock on the Door Brings a Lead”:

I’ve knocked on a few doors in my decade as a reporter covering the technology industry and Silicon Valley. Typically, I’ve done it to get an evasive executive or skittish tech employee to comment on an article. More often than not, the doors are dead ends.

Door knocks, as they’re known in journalism, are far from the most glamorous part of the job. Sometimes the person has moved. Other times, nobody answers. Occasionally you’ll get a door slammed in your face.

So I wasn’t expecting much when, in September, I knocked on — well, buzzed the dilapidated intercom system of — a weathered sandstone apartment building in Valletta, the capital of Malta. I had flown some 6,700 miles from my home in Los Angeles to chase a tip about Peter Thiel, a tech billionaire and an influential U.S. political patron; I had been told he was applying for citizenship in Malta, the quaint Mediterranean nation that is known to sell “golden passports” to wealthy foreigners. After two days of fruitless meetings with immigration lawyers, Maltese bureaucrats and politicians, paying a visit to the apartment, which I believed was tied to Mr. Thiel through documents I had seen, was my last throw of the dice.

I didn’t expect a man worth an estimated $4.2 billion to actually be spending time in a two-bedroom apartment in a slightly run-down structure surrounded by discarded beer cans and construction debris. So my heart skipped a beat when I was buzzed in. I cautiously pushed the door open and walked up three flights of stairs, only to come face-to-face with a confused British woman on holiday.

She told me that she had no idea who owned or rented the place, and that her family had booked it for a short-term vacation stay. I was puzzled, but went back to my hotel and eventually found a listing for a “2BR Seafront Executive Penthouse” on Airbnb that used the same address and included contact information for the host. I had my break.

Mr. Thiel, a co-founder of PayPal, Facebook’s first outside investor and a major American political donor, has been a subject of my reporting for more than half of my career. I first covered him as a staff writer at Forbes, where a colleague and I broke the story that Mr. Thiel had been secretly funding the wrestler Hulk Hogan’s lawsuit against Gawker Media. Since I joined The New York Times last year, I have continued to cover his activities in tech and politics.

The Maltese citizenship story was bizarre, but relevant: This year, The Times reported that Mr. Thiel, who backed Donald J. Trump in the 2016 presidential election with a late $1.25 million donation, had become one of the largest individual donors in the upcoming 2022 midterm elections. To date, he has spent more than $30 million this election cycle to support more than a dozen Republican candidates, many of whom have advocated an “America First” approach to governing. Why, then, would someone so invested in changing the political makeup of the United States apply for citizenship in Malta?

Malta, a member of the European Union, has become notorious for raising hundreds of millions of euros since 2013 by selling passports to the global elite. These days, a €750,000 payment following a 12-month application and due diligence process will get most people a Maltese passport, which gives holders a hedge against political or social turmoil in their home nations and permission to live anywhere in the European Union. As part of the process, passport applicants must establish a residence on the island — though they do not have to make it their full-time home — as they go through due diligence checks from the Maltese authorities.

Before I boarded the plane, my colleague Justin Scheck and I had spent months trying to understand Mr. Thiel’s motives and his connections to Malta. We called immigration experts. We dug through corporate and government documents associated with Mr. Thiel and his companies. And we approached people who we believed were involved with Mr. Thiel’s application, to little progress. So, I flew to Malta myself.

Through the door knock, we confirmed that the apartment was owned by a lawyer who we believed to be associated with Mr. Thiel. What’s more, we learned that the lawyer and his family had listed the apartment on Airbnb, a potential problem for Mr. Thiel since people applying for Maltese passports are not allowed to rent or sublet their residences during the application period. (The apartment was made unavailable to book on Airbnb after I contacted the owner.)

We presented our reporting to Mr. Thiel and gave him a chance to comment before publishing the article, though he declined. But my trip to Malta gave us the confidence that our reporting was accurate.

It just took a door knock for us to start piecing things together.

Ryan Mac is a technology reporter focused on corporate accountability across the global tech industry. He won a 2020 George Polk award for his coverage of Facebook and is based in Los Angeles.

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