Documents seized in 2021 anti-money laundering raid on restaurants not yet analysed

Documents police had seized in April 2021 arrests of Florinda Sultana and Albert Buttigieg have not yet been exhibited because they are ‘still being analysed’

Albert Buttigieg (left) and Florinda Sultana
Albert Buttigieg (left) and Florinda Sultana

Documents that had been seized by the police during the April 2021 arrests of two money laundering suspects have not yet been exhibited in the criminal proceedings against them, with the court being told this morning that the documents were “still being analysed.”

This emerged as the compilation of evidence against Florinda Sultana and Albert Buttigieg, who is charged with using restaurants to launder money linked to fuel smuggling, continued before magistrate Donatella Frendo Dimech.

Sultana and Buttigieg were involved in a number of companies operating the Porticello – formerly Scoglitti – restaurant at Valletta and Capo Mulini at Marsaxlokk. Both restaurants are alleged to be involved in laundering money linked to oil smuggling.

The pair had been the subjects of search warrants and were arrested in 2021 as part of a large scale police anti-smuggling operation which led to the arraignments of ex-footballers Darren Debono and Jeffrey Chetcuti, together with auditor Chris Baldacchino and fuel trader Gordon Debono.

One of the prosecuting inspectors, Inspector James Turner, returned to the witness stand today, telling the court that the police were unable to state the amount allegedly made by the accused from the alleged criminal activity.

The reason for this was that the activity was cash-based, explained the inspector, however adding that among the items seized following searches, there was €40,000 in cash, an Audi A1 and designer clothes.

“We cannot conclude the precise amount because both businesses we investigated were cash-based companies,” Turner said. Some of the documents recovered from the premises indicated that some sales were not declared, he said. Documents also showed that the salaries paid to the workers were not always declared, the inspector went on. MS1 Catering Ltd had failed to declare over €70,000 and Luzzu Catering €20,000, he said, insisting that he could not commit to a global amount at this stage.

He also told the court that the investigation had not succeeded in identifying all of the sources of funds used to fund the businesses.

Defence lawyer Stefano Filletti pointed out that in 2019 Sultana had not been an owner of the company, as she had bought it in 2020.

“You investigated money laundering. Which were the transactions which led you to investigate money laundering?” asked the lawyer.

The witness protested that for today’s sitting, he had prepared himself for questions on the proceeds, and not transactions.

Filletti once again asked him what transactions he was looking at.  “Where are you seeing money laundering?”

“Documents, ledgers and handwritten documents, data indicating that amounts were not declared,” replied the inspector. “So are you talking about undeclared income? Filletti replied.

“We are talking about how the business started,” stated the inspector. The lawyer asked him directly whether there was a suspicion that Darren Debono’s money was involved in the business. “Yes,” he replied.

Asked why Debono was problematic as a source of funds, Turner explained, “Debono is facing money laundering proceedings in Malta and abroad in Italy. He has a pending case on fuel smuggling.” 

He confirmed that Debono had not yet been convicted nor acquitted in these proceedings.

Filletti posited that the business had generated money in Malta, and the witness agreed. The lawyer asked how much unpaid tax was suspected. The witness replied that he could not quantify the amount.

“If you are accusing me of not declaring my income for tax purposes, you must know how much I allegedly didn’t declare,” insisted the lawyer.

Turner told the court that a document had been found in Sultana’s possession which stated which sales would be declared which wouldn’t be.

“That is what the police are interpreting it is,” interjected Filletti.

Albert Buttigieg had also withdrawn €10,000 which were used for medical treatment, the inspector said. “What is illegal about this?” asked Filletti.

The inspector also explained that with regards to Sultana, “the things found during searches, the cash, designer clothes and the car, were not traced in any bank transactions.”

Filletti retorted that it was “known” that they had problems with their banks.

Inspector Turner went on, telling the court that analysis of Sultana’s bank transactions showed that items had been bought from Kiabi, Piazza Italia and Bershka. “But these outlets do not sell Louis Vuitton,” which Sultana owned. Filletti suggested that they could have been fakes.

The investigation had started with Darren Debono as a point of departure, confirmed the inspector. The court asked what the prosecution’s Maltese case was based on. “It is based on the case that he is being prosecuted in Italy for fuel smuggling.”

But asked whether he had investigated the fuel smuggling angle, the inspector said he had not. The Maltese investigation had focused on certain transactions between Debono’s companies, he said. Neither had the police spoken to the issuers of the invoices deemed suspicious, he confirmed, pointing out that all this had happened he had been involved in the investigation.

“How come they are being charged with laundering the proceeds of criminal activity, which you are saying is fuel smuggling, but fuel smuggling is, till now, just a hypothesis?” Magistrate Frendo Dimech asked, “I’m not even seeing circumstantial evidence so far.”

“The investigation started with the alleged fuel smuggling in Italy,” explained the inspector.

At this point, the defence was granted permission to approach the bench, together with the prosecution, to discuss commercially sensitive information.

A few minutes later, with everyone back in their places in the courtroom, Filletti asked the inspector whether the police had investigated the allegations of the involvement of fuel smuggling in Italy. “We have not.” replied the inspector.

Before adjourning the case to a later date, the court asked the prosecution what evidence was yet to be exhibited.

Prosecutor Antoine Agius Bonnici from the Office of the Attorney General informed the court that some of the documents seized during the accused’s arrest had not been analysed yet and had, consequently, not yet been exhibited. 

The court admonished the prosecution for this shortcoming, telling them that documents should have been reviewed before people were prosecuted and not afterwards. Agius Bonnici explained that the only alternative was that the prosecution exhibits all the documentation indiscriminately, risking flooding the court file with documents that could be irrelevant.

The magistrate dictated a note, which was also to be communicated to the Attorney General, giving the prosecution six weeks to present these documents.

The case continues in May.