Grixti used ‘agents’ to collect cut on fraudulent benefits he helped constituents obtain

A €5,000 “fee” emerged in a number of interrogations, with recipients saying they would be asked to pay the cash after their applications were approved 

Silvio Grixti entering the court building
Silvio Grixti entering the court building

The individuals charged together with former Labour MP Silvio Grixti, in connection with the social benefits fraud racket would demand €5,000 from the people for whom he allegedly forged medical certificates that would qualify them to receive social benefits they weren’t entitled to.

The disability benefits racket had enabled claimants to receive monthly payments, averaging around €450, from the Department of Social Security.

The compilation of evidence against Grixti and alleged co-conspirators Roger Agius, Emmanuel Spagnol, Dustin Caruana, and Luke Saliba, continued before magistrate Rachel Montebello on Wednesday.

The men stand charged with organising and forming part of a criminal organisation, defrauding the Department of Social Security of an amount in excess of €5,000, forging official documents that entitle holders to payment and knowingly making use of such documents.

The men are also accused of forging public documents and knowingly making use of them, making a false declaration to the public authorities and possession of items intended to be used for fraudulent purposes, as well as a separate charge of money laundering.
Despite the serious nature of the charges, the defendants enjoy unrestricted movement as they were not charged under arrest.

Six witnesses testified during today’s four-hour sitting, including Grazio Barbara, the Director General of the Social Services Department.

Barbara was relentlessly cross-examined on the stand by lawyer Jason Azzopardi. The witness confirmed that illegal 'reconsiderations' of applications previously refused by the medical board had been made, and that it was Marc Calleja, a close associate of Minister Michael Falzon, who would order them.

Some of the applications had even been approved over the phone, Barbara admitted. 

During the police investigation, the €5,000 “fee” had emerged in a number of interrogations, the court was told. Recipients had said that they would be asked to pay the €5,000 sum after their applications were approved. 

Investigators had also noticed that when those people would receive their first payment of the severe disability benefit, often several months in arrears, they would withdraw the entire amount and hand it over to people they referred to as ‘agents’ of Silvio Grixti's, as payment for his making the necessary arrangements.

Inspector Shaun Friggieri gave a PowerPoint presentation in court, explaining how WhatsApp chats showed how the defendant and other people had collaborated to defraud the State. The court also heard audio clips of phone calls in which the scheme was openly discussed.

A number of the first people who had been charged and pleaded guilty to receiving benefits through fraud, had tried to avoid mentioning Grixti and had named other people to the police. It soon emerged, however, that the individuals they had named were deceased, Inspector Friggieri said.

By early October 2021, the police had divided the evidence into four box files: the first containing the names of those who were fraudulently receiving the benefits, the second with the details of the doctors who were allegedly signing them off - in total 16 doctors whose names were found on Grixti's laptop. The third box file related to the social security department and the fourth dealing with Transport Malta, which was also involved insofar as it a number of people were illicitly claiming benefits for conditions which disqualified them from driving. 

Transport Malta had told the police that some of the certificates were in the wrong format and appeared to be forged, said the inspector.
He said that some of the people charged over the benefits fraud had told the police that they had been invited to a bar in Tarxien by Grixti’s associates, where they would fill in the paperwork.

Grazio Barbara, Director General of Social Security then took the witness stand to explain the medical side of the benefits screening procedure.

Answering a question from lawyer Franco Debono about whether the applicants were examined and what the Board would base their opinions on, Barbara said that the department would rely on the information provided by the patient, together with medical certificates issued by their specialist.

“Would they ask for the specialist who issued the certificate to appear before them"? asked the lawyer. The witness said he didn’t know, but couldn’t rule out that it would “sometimes happen.” 

Lawyer Jason Azzopardi, who is assisting Roger Agius, asked how the pool of doctors who used to see the patients were selected.
At first Barbara said that he didn’t know, but later confirmed that the Permanent Secretary would tell him they were chosen by the Ministry.
The court warned Barbara that he was being evasive on the stand and risked legal action himself. Azzopardi suggested that he be cautioned as his testimony could give rise to self-incrimination.

The witness also said that during the COVID-19 pandemic a phone call from Income Support would suffice as there would be no home visits. 

Azzopardi suggested that a medical certificate had been issued for a woman saying that she had no hands, but who appeared with all her limbs before the Board, but the question was disallowed by the court. 

The sitting was adjourned to April 24. 

Lawyers Arthur Azzopardi and Franco Debono are appearing for Grixti. Lawyers Michael Sciriha, Lucio Sciriha and Roberto Spiteri are appearing for Caruana and Spagnol. Lawyers Jason Azzopardi and Kris Busietta are assisting Agius, while lawyers Josè Herrera and Matthew Xuereb are counsel to Saliba.

Prosecutors Abigail Caruana Vella and Charmaine Abdilla from the Attorney General's office are prosecuting, together with Inspectors Andy Rotin, Wayne Borg and Shaun Friggieri. Lawyer Anita Giordimaina is representing the Department of Social Security.