Sicilian oil smuggling suspect is ‘no mafioso’, lawyer warns MaltaToday

Lawyer says one of the principal suspects in Operation Dirty Oil, said by Italian investigators to have connections to feared Santipaola-Ercolano mafia clain, is not a mafia associate

Nicola Orazio Romeo (left) in Malta with Massimo Porta, an Italian bunkering company representative, and Darren Debono (right)
Nicola Orazio Romeo (left) in Malta with Massimo Porta, an Italian bunkering company representative, and Darren Debono (right)

The lawyer of one of the main suspects in an alleged €30 million oil-smuggling ring being prosecuted in Italy, has told MaltaToday in a letter that Sicilian accomplice Nicola Orazio Romeo “is not a Mafia associate”.

Romeo, 47, is accused of forming part of the criminal conspiracy that smuggled oil from Libya, using boats belonging to former Malta footballer Darren Debono, aided through companies set up by Gordon Debono, and then sold in Italy.

According to the letter sent to MaltaToday by Mario Cardillo, Romeo’s lawyer, “the allegation of Romeo being an associate of the Mafia is categorically false! Romeo is unimpeachable, has never been reported for Mafia, and is only facing proceedings in the Syracuse tribunal over something that has nothing to do with the Mafia.”

The lawyer warned MaltaToday that Romeo would take legal action to defend his reputation.

It was Italian investigators in Operation Dirty Oil who, in fact, described Romeo – who has companies domiciled in Malta – as being associated with the Mafia.

Various Italian newspapers, both regional as well as national titles, have invariably described Romeo as being “tied” to the Sicilian Mafia and “close” to the Santapaola-Ercolano family: a Catanese clan responsible for the 1984 murder of journalist Giuseppe Fava.

But more specifically, it was the Catanese police investigators who declared, in the prosecutors’ report that accompanied the charge sheet, that Romeo’s actions were carried out “to further the business interests of the Santapaola-Ercolano family”.

The same report details a telephonic interception in which the smuggling ring’s Italian associates also speak of Romeo’s connections to the Sicilian underworld. “Nicola is part of the real underworld, the one nobody touches,” accused Massimo Porta tells a colleague. “He’s always being tapped when he is in Sicily.”

Italian police have described Romeo as being ‘tied’ to a Catanese mafia family
Italian police have described Romeo as being ‘tied’ to a Catanese mafia family

Additionally, Romeo was listed in yet another Italian investigation which specifically accused of him of the crime of Mafia association, within the Santapaola-Ercolano family. Operation Gaming Offline includes Romeo in its list of accused in a conspiracy on money laundering that used Malta as one of the bases for a gaming company. Some 68 people across the three southern Italian regions were arrested, with 29 arrest warrants involving Mafia bosses based in Catania, Syracuse, Caltanisetta and Ragusa issued, accused of running illegal gambling operations operating under the Planetwin365 brand, a company licensed by the Malta gaming regulator.

According to evidence revealed by police investigators in Operation Dirty Oil, Romeo and his Maltese associates would use the company Oceano Blu Trading Ltd, as well as other offshore companies in the British Virgin Islands, to hide the flow of money used to pay Bin Khalifa.

Romeo also happens to have a Maltese ‘address’, housed at the same San Gwann address where Darren Debono’s companies and ships were domiciled.

Earlier this week, one of Romeo’s smuggling associates, Gordon Debono, was revealed to have two court decisions in Cyprus ordering that two of his offshore companies – Belize company Oil & Ship Consultancy (OSC) and BVI company Marine Offshore Investments Ltd (MOIL) – pay a total of €2.8 million to the Dubai company International Properties and Investment Ltd (IPIL) as part of a loan agreement agreed back in September 2017, just before Debono’s arrest in Sicily.

As it turns out, IPIL’s ‘board of directors’ is represented by Gordon Debono’s wife, Yvette. Now lawyers for both husband and wife in Malta are asking the courts to recognise the Cypriot decision, as per EU law.

Originally, the United States’ Office of Foreign Assets Control issued sanctions on companies owned by Gordon Debono, but neither MOIL nor OSC were identified in the first raft of sanctions. Malta has also failed in passing a raft of UN sanctions against the smugglers due to Russian opposition.