Lawyer slams case against grocery store owners accused of laundering 'up to €4 million'

Magistrate Leonard Caruana has adjourned the case to October for sentencing

The lawyer representing a couple charged with laundering money by cashing cheques at their grocery store has accused the Attorney General of embellishing the charges, arguing in his final submissions that although only 14 cheques had emerged from the evidence, they had been accused of laundering up to €4 million.

44-year-old Marsa resident Alan Harmsworth and his wife Josephine, 41, had been arraigned under arrest in January 2021 and accused of operating as an unlicensed financial institution or bank, in breach of financial services and banking law, as well as being charged with money laundering.

During the couple’s arraignment, the prosecuting police inspector at the time had told the court that the couple would cash cheques for the bearer and charge €3 to €16 for this service. As sittings in the case progressed the defence had whittled down the evidence to just 14 such cheques.

Making final submissions for the defendants on Monday, lawyer Edward Gatt argued that they had not been aware that what they were doing could be construed as money laundering and accused the prosecution of cruelly misrepresenting the facts to make the couple appear in the worst possible light.

“When all is said and done, you must see whether there was awareness that this was money laundering or not,” said the lawyer. “The couple’s lottery booth does not feature in the alleged crime. The prosecution knows that it has nothing to do with it, but I’m sorry to say that the prosecution continued to conveniently mix apples and oranges to keep the case going. This is not on. This is not justice.”

“Although the material fact is there, why was it done this way?” asked the lawyer.

Gatt said that the couple’s separate lotto business had been mentioned in the case in order to confuse matters further, suggesting that the additional firearms offences with which Alan Harmsworth had been charged were part of a prosecution’s strategy intended to impress the court. 

In fact, said the lawyer, ALE officers had found shotguns under Harmsworth’s bed at his residence, together with illegal buckshot, which uses larger pellets than regular birdshot, which is legal. 

“This action to confuse the person judging the case is not fair,” Gatt argued.

“The financial institution, the bank which cashed the cheque, one, two, three, four, five times,” was not accused of any offences, he said. 

Reminding the court that in criminal matters, any doubt must weigh in favour of the accused, Gatt said that he was  “not wholly convinced that all the required elements of the crime have been proven.”

The crux of this case, said the lawyer, had emerged from his cross-examination of Inspector Oriana Spiteri, in relation to his request to cap the amounts allegedly laundered.

Gatt said that the evidence showed 14 cheques, from which the couple were allegedly making “€2 to €5,” each.

“So what is the case about? €75? We cannot be nebulous anymore. Do you know what [Inspector Spiteri] said? €4 million. She said that every cheque that they received from the lotto and the grocer were being treated as income for money laundering. “14 cheques in Edward Gatt’s name, deposited in an account not belonging to Edward Gatt,”  the lawyer said by way of example.

“So the bank puts me through the wringer, with client due diligence procedures and so on, and then it allows people to cash cheques made out to other individuals.”

The fact that money laundering charges don’t require prosecutors to specify the amount they suspect to have been laundered is cruel, argued the lawyer.

“Where is the laundering? Buying a garage to store produce for their shop? Buying two second-hand BMWs and a Mercedes?”

Many third-country nationals residing in Malta don’t have a bank account because the banks will refuse to onboard them as clients, Gatt said. “But they also can’t be paid in cash, because of money laundering concerns. So cheques are used.”

Officers from the Asset Recovery Bureau had catalogued the contents of the Harmsworth’s house, even taking photos of their sofa and their bedroom, said the lawyer. “This is obscene! But they had to do that, because otherwise, where else could they have laundered the proceeds of these 14 cheques?” he quipped.

The question which the court had to ask was whether, at the time when they cashed these cheques, they had the specific criminal intent to launder money, Gatt said, imploring the court to nip abusive practices in the bud and warning of the dangers of reducing the threshold for money laundering to that level.

An expert whose report was exhibited in the proceedings was also the court-appointed administrator who would send people undercover in a bid to catch them out, Gatt said, likening this modus operandi to that of fictional Gestapo officer Herr Flick, of Allo Allo comedy series fame. “He invoiced the court for €29,000,000 for a month and a half of work and then he stopped,” something he had been able to legally do due to a legal loophole.

This raised the issue of who would be footing the bill, said the lawyer, arguing that such costs are often far greater than the punishment laid down in the law.

Gatt cited the judgement in the case against Etienne Bartolo, who had been acquitted of murder and sentenced to five years in jail for the lesser crime of excess in legitimate self-defence, but had been made liable for all the costs of the case, including DNA examinations and so on. Gatt, who had represented Bartolo at trial, had subsequently filed an appeal only against the costs, which had been upheld. “In this situation, where a person is handed a punishment of one-tenth of that originally expected, costs should be abated accordingly.”

Prosecutor Andrea Zammit, who had been assigned to the case mid-way through the proceedings, argued that although money laundering charges invert the burden of proof onto the defendants, it had emerged clearly that the defence did not bring any evidence of its own. “Besides knowledge of the crime, there is also reasonable suspicion of the crime. Here we have people who were aware of what their business entailed, yet closed an eye to that suspicion.” 

Magistrate Leonard Caruana has adjourned the case to October for sentencing.