Car dealer accused of misappropriating €1.6 million, fraud and money laundering

Man charged with misappropriating €1.6 million and other financial crimes, denied bail

The court has denied bail to a man charged with misappropriating €1.6 million
The court has denied bail to a man charged with misappropriating €1.6 million

A man charged with misappropriating €1.6 million, fraud and money laundering was denied bail on Thursday afternoon.

Bernard Attard, 30, from Żebbuġ, who is a car dealer, pleaded not guilty to the charges.

Inspector Anthony Scerri testified about the man's arrest, explaining that the police had received two criminal complaints and a report from a notary, who told the police that his stamp and signature were used on documents without his knowledge or consent.

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One of the two victims had reported losing €600,000 and the other €8,000 at the hands of the accused. The police investigations confirmed that the majority of the money had passed to the accused and led them to believe that another victim had been defrauded of some €600,000.

Attard was duly arrested and questioned, the inspector said.

Magistrate Leonard Caruana explained to the accused that he was charged with money laundering: “This means that you had money, which is alleged to have come from an illegal source, which you used to convert them into something legitimate. From the basin of criminality to that of legitimacy.”

The magistrate explained that the accused was also charged with defrauding three people. “You are also accused of misappropriation of monies entrusted to you for a particular purpose... You are additionally being accused of falsification of a public document and making use of it, as well as falsification of a private writing and making use of it.”

Attard, who told the court that he was a car dealer, was also charged with recidivism. 

The prosecution, composed of lawyers Gary Cauchi and Marthese Grech from the Office of the Attorney General and police inspectors Anthony Scerri and Matthew Grech, requested the court issue a freezing and attachment order against the accused.

Attard’s lawyers, Rachel Tua and Edmond Cuschieri contested the validity of the man’s arrest.

Cuschieri cross examined the Inspector Scerri, asking him when the criminal complaints had been received. “The first was on 30 October 2019 and the other was received earlier this year.” The police had indications that the accused could be the culprit, he said.

The lawyer argued that the police had been in possession of the evidence for two years, asking why the sudden decision to arrest him. “One fine day he was arrested at 6am,” the defence argued.

Prosecutor Gary Cauchi replied that the investigations needed time to be carried out, adding that there were also bank searches involved.

“What is needed for arrest is reasonable suspicion,” reminded the prosecutor, quoting case law dating back to 2003 which established that once the arrest is valid, the decision to arraign under arrest or by summons is at the discretion of the police.

The magistrate, after hearing the parties’ submissions, declared the arrest to be justified and according to law.

The accused pleaded not guilty, commenting that the charges “are not true.” “Whether they are true or not is a separate issue. Do you understand them?” said the court. Attard said he did understand.

The defence requested a ban on the publication of the name of the accused, on the grounds that there appeared to be other people involved in the crimes and this would put him at risk. The prosecution objected, arguing that such bans were intended to protect victims and it was important to publicise the man’s name so that other potential victims could come forward.

The request for a ban was rejected by the court.

The defence also objected to the request for a freezing and attachment order, saying that many of the accused’s belongings were not obtained as a result of the alleged crime. 

The prosecution justified its request, arguing that the amounts allegedly defrauded amounted to some €1.6 million. “There appeared to have been payments to banks abroad. Part of justice is the recovery of the money and the payment of damages,” said Cauchi.

The court upheld the request for a freezing order, freezing all movable and immovable property belonging to the accused and prohibiting him from transferring or otherwise disposing of his property and money.

Bail was then requested, with Cuschieri arguing that the crimes had happened years before and that the police were already in possession of all the evidence. Two of the victims were no longer in Malta, argued the lawyer, pointing out that the accused had been granted police bail and not breached any conditions. Had there been any real fear of tampering with evidence, the police would have arrested him earlier, suggested the lawyer.

Tua added that in 2016 a judge had ordered criminal proceedings against one of the alleged victims. Both the accused’s mother and his girlfriend had been interrogated. During their questioning, they had mentioned several people involved in the case and had been released on police bail. 

The requisites for bail were satisfied, said the lawyer. The criminal complaint was filed two years ago, she repeated. 

The prosecution countered, saying that this argument did not hold water as investigations had to take place. The prosecution said that there was a risk of tampering with evidence, as one of the alleged victims was still in Malta and so was the notary.

The defence pointed out that the notary was not mentioned in the charges, but Cauchi explained that the during the course of the investigation the police had discovered that the accused had contacted the notary in 2020, well before his arrest, in which he had told him “not to make things worse.”

The court, after hearing the parties’ submissions and after seeing the relevant articles of the Criminal Code, denied bail at this stage, primarily because of the real fear of tampering with evidence as well as the fact that the court felt that the accused was not sufficiently trustworthy.

The court solicited the prosecution to summon its civilian witnesses as soon as possible so that the arrest of the accused is not drawn out unnecessarily.