Police investigating alleged money laundering activities by Darren Debono and Jeffrey Chetcuti had not checked whether what they suspected were illicit layering of funds were actually legitimate business transactions.
This emerged on Wednesday when criminal proceedings continued against the two former footballers who were arrested in November 2020 in a far-reaching sting operation concerning an international fuel smuggling ring.
Both spent months in preventive custody after pleading not guilty to money laundering and smuggling offences upon their arraignment.
The two returned to court on Wednesday for a hearing during which Inspector James Turner explained how investigations into the alleged fuel smuggling racket between Libya and Italy had kicked off in 2013 and had then been handled by his predecessor then-Inspector Antonovitch Muscat.
Debono’s companies and their relative bank accounts came under the lens as investigators sought to analyse business transactions, focusing also on closed accounts as well as vehicles and vessels over the years between 2013 and 2020.
Police had also gathered paperwork related to the importation of fuel from Libya by Debono, as broker for local fuel companies.
Documents included receipts issued by those companies as well as official documents issued by customs.
"So the monies were paid through banks, declared with customs and the purpose [of those payments] was to cover price of oil from Tiboda," pointed out defence lawyer Giannella de Marco, when cross-examining the witness.
At the time those transactions took place, Libya was a war-torn country and banking transactions in the country were next to impossible, went on the lawyer, seeking confirmation from the witness.
Making reference to various local fuel companies who had paid Debono for his brokerage services, de Marco asked whether investigators had spoken to those companies.
“I did not and I think that the other [investigating] team did not either,” came the reply.
“Did you ask them if they eventually received the fuel for the money they paid?”
“No,” replied the officer, explaining that once the source of funds was identified, investigators had followed the money trail.
“But did you actually verify whether those transactions were fake?” intervened the court, presided over by magistrate Donatella Frendo Dimech.
“No, we did not speak to those companies.”
“At first glance the money movements could give the impression of layering. But where is the illegality,” asked the court, seeking to summarise the defence’s line of questioning.
“That’s the point! These were legitimate Maltese fuel companies purchasing supplies through companies owned by Debono,” added de Marco.
The police had flagged suspicious transaction reports (STRs).
“But now we ask, did you speak to those companies like Falzon, Go, San Luċjan,” pressed on the lawyer.
But once again the witness replied in the negative, adding that when following the money trail certain discrepancies in amounts were detected.
However, such discrepancies were likely attributed to brokerage fees, countered the defence.
As questioning continued, Turner confirmed that the police had not checked the state of affairs on the Libya side and that no one at Tiboda had flagged allegations about fuel theft with the investigators involved in the case.
“Did any of the local companies allege that they paid for fuel and got water instead,” ventured de Marco, only to be met with another negative reply.
The case continues.
AG lawyers Antoine Agius Bonnici and Gary Cauchi assisted the prosecution. Lawyers de Marco, Stephen Tonna Lowell, Jean Paul Sammut and an Italian lawyer from the Rome-based Gentiloni & Silveri are counsel to Debono. Lawyers Gianluca Caruana Curran and Charles Mercieca are counsel to Chetcuti.