Time to introduce unexplained wealth orders

By targeting the beneficiaries and enablers of ill-gotten wealth, the State will be starving criminals from the oxygen supply that keeps them going

An unemployed single mother accused of ramming a shopfront with a Mercedes Benz because the tenant owes her money may not be the most serious crime.

But the case, which was heard in court on Monday, did raise eyebrows over the apparent wealth this woman possesses.

To be clear, her actions are abhorrent and could have resulted in a much worse predicament had she hit, two employees who were inside the shop.

The car does not appear to be hers and it is unclear if she was acting as the landlord or on behalf of a landlord. But the case did raise question marks as to how an unemployed person with three children could be driving a luxury car and collecting rent payments from tenants.

Without entering into the specific merits of this case, it does prompt the question as to whether the time has come to introduce new investigative powers at law in the form of unexplained wealth orders.

Former MP Jason Azzopardi had raised this issue in the last legislature but government desisted from pushing the concept forward when it made changes to the Proceeds of Crime law. The Opposition was ignored.

Then justice minister Edward Zammit Lewis had argued in 2021 that the introduction of UWOs will be a “second step” after assessing the effectiveness of the new law.

The UWO is a civil power and an investigation tool. The British law that came into force in 2018 requires a person who is reasonably suspected of involvement in, or of being connected to a person involved in, serious crime to explain the nature and extent of their interest in particular property, and to explain how it was obtained, where there are reasonable grounds to suspect that the person’s known lawfully obtained income would be insufficient to allow them to obtain the property.

The person will be required to provide information on certain matters, such as their lawful ownership of a property, and the means by which it was obtained. The information derived from a UWO will then be analysed and if further civil or criminal action is required the matter will be passed on to the relevant authorities.

However, a UWO can also be applied to politicians and politically exposed persons (PEPs) without the required suspicion of serious criminality.

Such powers would be an additional tool in the arsenal the State agencies have in combatting organised crime, corruption and money laundering.

There have been too many instances in court of people charged with serious crimes, who declare they are unemployed and yet have material wealth and a lifestyle that jars with their purported situation.

A UWO will allow investigative authorities to probe not only the individuals themselves but also those around them who may be acting as stand-ins for their spouses or relatives.

Hardened and sophisticated criminals often use people around them to serve as the acceptable façade for their illicit activities. The only way to break this cycle is to make the beneficiaries of ill-gotten gains as responsible as the persons committing the actual crimes.

This is what happened in Italy when the fight against the mafia went after the money and the enablers who moved it around.

If Malta wants to up its game against organised crime it needs to introduce UWOs.

Additionally, UWOs could also be used to probe politicians and PEPs if their lifestyles suddenly take a lucrative turn with no appreciable explanation.

When Keith Schembri told parliament’s Public Accounts Committee last month that he left politics poorer than when he entered it, very few believed him. The general impression is that people who get into power emerge richer.

It may be a mistaken impression but the only way to quash that is to have UWOs that allow investigative authorities to query the provenance of income and seemingly newfound lifestyles.

Obviously, UWOs will have to come with the necessary legal safeguards to prevent them being abused or used as a tool to satisfy public curiosity.

Malta does not need to invent the wheel. It can look at experience abroad and adapt existing legal models to the local scenario.

By targeting the beneficiaries and enablers of ill-gotten wealth, the State will be starving criminals from the oxygen supply that keeps them going.