Debono used false certificates and Maltese notary’s signature to gain ministry stamp

The 284-page ‘Dirty Oil’ dossier shows Debono was using falsified certificates of origin for smuggled Libyan oil to obtain a foreign ministry apostille so that his ships could offload their fuel in Italian ports

Under arrest: Libyan smuggling kingpin Fahmi Bin Khalifa (top) was arrested by Tripoli militia Rada, while Darren Debono (bottom left) and Gordon Debono were arrested in Lampedusa and Catania respectively after Operation Dirty Oil came to a head two weeks ago. All three are still under arrest.
Under arrest: Libyan smuggling kingpin Fahmi Bin Khalifa (top) was arrested by Tripoli militia Rada, while Darren Debono (bottom left) and Gordon Debono were arrested in Lampedusa and Catania respectively after Operation Dirty Oil came to a head two weeks ago. All three are still under arrest.

Italian press reports alleging the connivance of a ministry official in the fuel smuggling ring led by former Malta footballer Darren Debono, appear contradicted by the investigators’ dossier on Operation Dirty Oil.

The foreign ministry has launched an inquiry led by three permanent secretaries into allegations by financial newspaper Il Sole 24 Ore, suggesting a civil servant abetted Debono’s fuel smuggling ring. But the 284-page ‘Dirty Oil’ dossier paints a different picture, showing Debono was using falsified certificates of origin for smuggled Libyan oil to obtain a foreign ministry apostille – a certification of the documents – so that his ships could offload their fuel in Italian ports. Debono’s fuel smuggling ring was dealt an important blow in 2016 when the United Nations publicised the trafficking of fuel out of Libya by smuggling kingpin Fahmi Ben Khalifa – Debono’s business partner.

The operation included another Maltese national, Gordon Debono, who used his Maltese company Petroplus to issue false certificates of origin to conceal the Libyan fuel as hailing from Saudi Arabia.

Both Darren and Gordon Debono are under arrest in Sicily following the crackdown on the €30 million smuggling operation. But Darren Debono also required certification from the Maltese Chamber of Commerce to validate these documents, a condition for the oil to be offloaded inside an Italian port.

For two years before the UN report, the ‘Saudi’ transhipments were being unknowingly certified by the Chamber’s services. When the alarm bell rang at the Chamber, Debono tried obtaining a foreign ministry apostille.

Debono finds brick wall

In May 2016, Debono started encountering difficulties obtaining the necessary certification from the Chamber of Commerce, ostensibly suspecting that Petroplus’s ‘Saudi’ certificates were false.

In a telephone call Debono made to Italian oil trader Marco Porta, intercepted by the Italian and Maltese secret services, investigators say “there was clear anxiety about offloading the Libyan oil… as soon as possible at the port of Augusta (Sicily)… throughout May, there were numerous telephone calls attesting to the difficulty of obtaining certificates of origin for their product.” On the 3 June 2016, Debono informed Porta of the “unequivocal refusal” by the Chamber of Commerce to certify documents issued by Oceano Blu Trading, a company run by Gordon Debono and used as a financial vehicle for the funnelling of profits offshore.

At this point, a telephone interception sheds light on Debono’s problems at providing Porta with the verified documents necessary to offload the oil shipments in port

Debono: “Dottor Porta, good evening… I’m still blocked here.”

Porta: “Why?”

D: “No, nothing, nothing special, aehm, because you know everything I sent you, I’ve spoken to everybody here in Malta… aehm… and this lady is expecting some email to take a decision and we’re tired of this excuse, for this son of a bitch… because the minister, because she’s been signing everything for 30 years and she wants to be sure one hundred percent, and here I am at the foreign ministry, just imagine, to have this email sent to her.”

P: “Eh. Well it’s urgent, and…”

D: “Ehhh I know, it’s too urgent and I can imagine the pressure for the Tiuboda [cargo ship], the crew, on you, on me…”

P: “Ok…”

D: “I have no alternative… it so happens this woman of 55 years who has been working here for 30 years is saying: ‘aaaah, I command here, I do this because only I can sign’… and that ‘not even the minister tells me what to sign’...”

Then in another telephone call, although the intercepted conversation is not published, the investigators say that Debono “showed himself optimistic for a resolution in the diatribe with the Maltese office, thanks to possible connivance with people close to the economy ministry.”

In the meantime, the smuggling ring’s Italian partner – Mafia associate Nicola Orazio Romeo – was suggesting obtaining certification from the Catanese chamber of commerce to bypass the stumbling block in Malta.

On the 9 June, new interceptions revealed that a new consignment of 50,000 tonnes of Libyan oil was being transported to Augusta and Civitavecchia ports.

This time around, Debono had procured the signature of Maltese notary Anton Borg for the certificates of origin of the fuel, to show it hailed from the Azzawija Oil Refining Company, a subsidiary of the Libyan national oil company. In reality, the smuggled oil was being transhipped from one vessel to the other on the high seas.

The certificate carried the Azzawija letterhead and National Oil Corporation symbol, falsely claiming that the sale of fuel was made to Bin Khalifa’s company Tiuboda Oil & Gas Service LLC.

The certificate had actually been procured by a man identified as ‘Fitouri’, believed to be an NOC official, for a bribe of 120,000 Libyan dinars (€74,000) paid into a Dubai bank account.

With these certificates in hand now carrying a Maltese notary’s signature, it is apparent that Debono was successful in obtaining two apostilles from the ministry of foreign affairs’ legalisation officer, Karen Montebello.

At this stage, the Italian investigators write in their dossier: “Such a complex stratagem is evidence of the notable capacity of the criminal group to produce, from time to time, mendacious documents by exploiting the network of complicity Debono had in Malta.

The criminal conduct was rendered possible by the collaboration of the Maltese functionary, who officially legalised the documents.” It is not clear whether the Italian investigators are convinced of the actual connivance of the ministry official, since no other reference is made in the dossier’s conclusions.

A telephone interception on 10 June, suggests that it was the notary’s signature on the false documents that enabled the issuance of the apostilles:

Conversation between collaborators Antonio Baffo and Peppino Guerrera in Sicily:

Guerrera: “So they got an original [certificate] on the sly, and then they had these documents signed by… one of them is from the ministry of foreign affairs in Valletta.”

Baffo: “Exactly…”

G: “That would be Anton Borg [the Maltese notary].”

Indeed, the apostille proved to be useless since the Augusta port’s customs office demanded that any certification be issued by the Chamber of Commerce.

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