Police question serial fraudster as benefit fraud investigation widens

Benefit fraud cases concentrated in Tarxien, Żejtun and Birżebbuġa

Former Labour MP Silvio Grixti implicated in long-running disability benefit fraud scheme. (Photos of documents: Times of Malta)
Former Labour MP Silvio Grixti implicated in long-running disability benefit fraud scheme. (Photos of documents: Times of Malta)

Police are widening their probe into the benefits fraud racket that has flagged 160 cases of abuse and implicated former Labour MP Silvio Grixti, MaltaToday has learnt. 

Sources close to the investigation said that apart from Grixti, police have questioned another person of interest from Żejtun with a long history of forgery and fraud. 

“This individual may have been involved in the actual forgery of medical documents and would have most certainly done it for money,” the sources said. 

It is unclear at this stage what working relationship Grixti and this individual had between them. However, some of the abuse cases happened in 2022 after Grixti’s alleged involvement became public knowledge, leading investigators to believe others continued with the racket independently from the doctor. 

Grixti has not been charged yet over his alleged involvement in the racket with police only arraigning the beneficiaries. 

Information obtained by this newspaper shows that 28% of abuse cases so far were concentrated in just three localities – Tarxien (16 cases), Żejtun (15) and Birżebbuġa (14). 

Benefit fraud predominant in Labour-leaning districts  

A breakdown of the 160 cases by electoral district shows that 21% of all cases involved residents in the 4th District, followed by the 1st District (19%), the 3rd District (16%), and the 5 District (13%). All four districts are Labour-leaning and collectively account for 109 abuse cases, or 68% of the total flagged so far. 

Sources said the police are still going through the files of suspected beneficiaries of this racket, which appears to have run between late 2018 and 2022. The police have so far honed in on 160 cases of abuse but sources privy to the investigation believe the number could double as the probe intensifies. 

“Investigators are requesting information from social services on certain individuals whose names would have cropped up during investigations and going through the relevant documentation to identify cases of abuse,” the sources said. 

Names lifted from Grixti’s laptop 

A list of more than 200 patient names suspected of having benefitted from the abuse had been extracted by the police from Grixti’s laptop. Sources said at least 60% of people on the list had received the severe disability assistance, while others received some other social payments unrelated to the abuse. 

Grixti, a family doctor, contested the general election for the first time in 2017 and was elected to parliament from the 3rd District on the Labour ticket. His parliamentary career was lacklustre until he was forced to resign in December 2021 when police interrogated him after a civil servant presented a forged medical certificate to get boarded out. 

The civil servant had appeared in front of a medical board that is unrelated to the one that assesses requests for the severe disability benefit and presented a certificate signed by a psychiatrist to justify his request to be boarded out. 

Sources said the medical board noticed an anomaly and asked the psychiatrist for clarifications. However, red flags went up when the psychiatrist informed the board that the man was never his patient and the medical certificate was never signed by him. 

“At this point the matter was brought to the attention of the Office of the Prime Minister that reported the case to the police and during investigations Silvio Grixti’s name cropped up,” the sources said. 

Soon after, the police asked social services to provide information on benefits paid out to more than 200 individuals as the case snowballed into an elaborate racket involving the severe disability benefit. Beneficiaries of this assistance receive some €450 per month. 

Abuse cases expected to increase 

A breakdown of numbers obtained by MaltaToday shows that from the 160 cases of abuse identified so far, payments had started being issued in 149 cases, while no payments had yet been made in 11 cases. All payments have now been stopped and the Social Security Department is in the process of recouping the money, which so far totals €2.3 million. 

One case dates back to the end of 2018, while 32 individuals started receiving the assistance in 2019. With the onset of COVID-19, the cases of fraud ballooned in 2020 to 74. 

From the cases investigated so far, 20 go back to 2021 and 13 to 2022 but investigators believe these numbers will increase. 

“During the two-year COVID interlude medical board assessments were done remotely and applicants had to upload certificates online, which meant that doctors did not have original certificates in hand, making it easier for fraudsters to manipulate the system,” the sources said. They added that most of the abuse cases flagged so far involved individuals who were struggling financially as a result of some form of disability or medical condition. 

Some of the fake severe conditions listed in the fraudulent medical certificates included epilepsy, hydrocephalus (a condition in which fluid accumulates in the brain, enlarging the head and sometimes causing brain damage), ALS and muscular dystrophy. 

Assistance not given to everyone 

Not all applications for the severe disability assistance between 2019 and 2022 were accepted by the medical board tasked to review the cases. 

Statistics obtained from the Social Policy Ministry show that during the period, 2,738 people applied to receive the assistance. Of these, only 39% were accepted, or 1,056. 

Additional information provided by the ministry shows that ongoing internal investigations to stem abuse in social benefits between 2019 and 2022 led to €17.6 million in savings and benefits being stopped in 4,293 cases. 

“The compliance division regularly carries out spot checks to ensure social benefits are not abused but in the latest racket involving severe disability assistance things became more apparent when some of the medical documents presented by the applicants were identical or contained repeated glaring mistakes indicating some form of standard document that was being used by those perpetrating the abuse,” a spokesperson for the ministry said. 

He did not want to comment on individual cases but insisted the ministry was cooperating fully with the police in their investigations.