Sliema councillor ‘strip-searched’ by police acquitted of fraud charges

Former PN and Labour councillors Yves Bobby Calì and Martin Debono acquitted of misusing funds to buy over €2,000 in laptops for their personal use • Debono had been strip-searched in controversial police investigations

Martin Debono was controversially strip-searched by police over the investigation into an alleged misuse of funds (Photo: Gilbert Calleja)
Martin Debono was controversially strip-searched by police over the investigation into an alleged misuse of funds (Photo: Gilbert Calleja)

Two former Sliema councillors have been cleared of misappropriating and misuse of council funds and damaging local council’s laptops after the court ruled that the prosecution failed to prove the charges.

The charges had been lodged during a highly-charged period for the Sliema council, under pressure over bribery charges against its then Nationalist mayor Nikki Dimech, which charges preceded the dissolution of the council.

Former Nationalist councillor Yves ‘Bobby’ Calì, 67, and former Labour councillor Martin Debono, 55, were acquitted of misusing the council’s funds to buy two laptops, of misappropriating the Sliema local council’s laptops for their personal use, and of damaging the laptops.

The case dates back to October 2010, when police had received an anonymous tip-off that Calì and Debono, who both resigned in the wake of the criminal investigations, had used the council’s funds to purchase two Apple laptops worth €1,163 each for their personal use.

On September 29, 2010, the issue was raised during a local council meeting when an invoice for computer hardware was flagged by an audit report as these had neither been registered nor found in the local council’s possession.

A day after the meeting, the laptops were returned to the local council, but their hard-drives were missing – prompting an investigation into claims that computers have been damaged.

Subsequently, a search at the accused’s home yielded the hard drive, power supply and the software package of the two laptops.

When questioned, Calì and Debono claimed that they had purchased the laptops using their money as well as the council’s. Moreover, the court, presided by Magistrate Audrey Demicoli had found that they had purchased the laptops for their work in connection with council projects.

The court, however, cleared the accused of all charges, after the prosecution failed to prove its case or that the removal of their hard drives had led to their damage.

Moreover, the court ruled that even though the laptops were taken outside the council premises, they were not misappropriated as they were still listed as council assets, and that the council itself approved the purchase.

The Magistrate also ruled that the prosecution failed to prove that the councillors misappropriated the laptops and neither that they neither made financial gain from their use.

Acquitting them of the charges, the court also held that the computers were not damages as a result of the removal of the hard drives, and insisted that for any computer to be deemed impaired, it must be “unusable.”

Inspector Angelo Gafà prosecuted while Lawyers Arthur Azzopardi and Joe Giglio were defence counsel.

Strip-searched councillor

Martin Debono said he was humiliated by police when he was ordered to strip naked at the Floriana headquarters, where he was questioned over the alleged misuse of a laptop computer belonging to the council.

Debono was arrested with other Sliema and St Julian’s councillors, among them former Sliema mayor Nikki Dimech, on 16 January, 2011. “I was arrested by plain-clothes police officers and taken to the police station at night. And right before I was questioned, I was strip-searched. They said it was procedure but they wouldn’t tell me what I was being accused of,” Debono said.

Debono said that the Sliema councillors arrested – Dimech, Yves Calì, and himself – were the same ones who gave evidence in court against Stephen Buhagiar, the personal driver of Nationalist MP Robert Arrigo. Buhagiar had earlier last year claimed Dimech asked him for bribes on a council works contract he had been awarded.

“I told the officers this was a frame-up intended to besmirch my good name,” Debono said, claiming his ordeal at the hands of interrogators was unbefitting of somebody accused of using a council laptop for his personal use.

Debono was given his clothes back and taken to the police inspector’s office. “Inspector Angelo Gafà was asking me questions about the laptop and as soon as I finish my answers he accused me of saying ‘lies… all lies’. So he ordered the officers to lock me up downstairs.”

Debono says he was incredulous as he was handed a pillow case and a blanket, and locked up in what he says was a freezing room. “I was under shock. I asked if there was a larger cell since I was feeling claustrophobic. I was moved to another cell but the walls were mouldy, the mattress was all worn out and it had a bad stench. There was no toilet paper and I was given a few pieces from another roll.”