Gaming companies threatened to leave Malta after Italian prosecutors “exposed” mafia infiltration of the industry, industry sources told the Investigative Reporting Project Italy.

According to the sources, a number of companies told the Malta Gaming Authority they would pack up and leave if it failed to clean up the sector.

The Investigative Reporting Project Italy (IRPI), investigating the links as part of the Daphne Project, found what it termed as a persistent lack of cooperation with Italian prosecutors seeking to freeze assets of a Malta-based gaming company having suspected mafia ties.

The threat of multiple gaming companies leaving the island came about after a Palermo court issued 26 arrest warrants in an operation called Game Over. The probe uncovered the extent of ties between Italian organised crime and the gaming industry in Malta.

Among those arrested was Benedetto Bacchi, described in the media as the “king of gambling”. Palermo prosecutors termed his operations as an “ATM with a continuous cash flow” that allowed money to be withdrawn to serve the needs of mafia clans.

The MGA started suspending the licences of gaming companies listed in the Game Over indictment and also launched its own investigation. Three Maltese operators gave up their licences voluntarily.

The IRPI reported that Bet1128, an online gaming brand that Italian prosecutors suspected had “deep ties” with organised crime in southern Italy, relocated to Malta in 2009 when its British licence was revoked in the aftermath of an Italian anti-mafia probe.

Its new controlling company, Centurionbet, obtained an operating licence despite facing money laundering charges. A structure hid the real ownership of the company.

It is easier to work with Peru or Colombia than with Malta

Intercepted phone conversations recorded by the Italian fiscal police indicated that Francesco Martiradonna, the son of a convicted mafia boss, was pulling the strings of the company’s operations behind the scenes, according to the IRPI investigation.

Mr Martiradonna was arrested in May 2017 and the MGA suspended all the company’s gaming licences a month later. His lawyer told reporters his client was determined to “clarify his position through judicial proceedings”.

Mr Martiradonna and over 100 other suspects are expected to start facing trial next month.

The IRPI said that although Centurionbet’s licence was suspended, the company’s assets remained active. The Italian courts are known to have made an urgent request to the Attorney General in Malta asking for Centurionbet’s assets to be frozen.

The aim was to avoid such assets being transferred or hidden so they might be confiscated.

The IRPI noted that weeks went by without any action by the Maltese authorities. This led the chief anti-mafia prosecutor in Catanzaro, a region in Calabria, to publicly declare his frustrations with the Maltese authorities last year.

“It is easier to work with Peru or Colombia than with Malta… If Malta decides not to collaborate or replies six months or a year later, the investigation is useless,” the, prosecutor, Nicola Gratteri, was quoted as saying.

The Italian court submitted a fresh request to freeze the assets last January. As it happened, after reporters from the IRPI contacted the Maltese authorities for comment, Attorney General Peter Grech informed his Italian counterparts the assets had been frozen. The IRPI said that, at the time of writing, no formal evidence had been given to the Italian police to prove that the assets were in fact frozen.

It commented that it was by now unlikely that Italian authorities would be able to find any of Centurionbet’s Malta assets.

A receptionist at Centurion’s former office told the IRPI reporters in March this year that “last December, Centurionbet packed up and left in a rush”.

Matteo Civillini and Cecilia Anesi (IRPI) worked on this investigation as part of the Daphne Project.

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