A mayor, a former mayor, a vice mayor and two local councillors were among a group of people yesterday charged with defrauding the European Commission in connection with the purchase of air­line tickets.

The issue first came to light when the European anti-fraud office, OLAF, noticed that a large number of airline tickets for which reimbursement was sought all cost the same.

The court heard that tickets were issued by KD Travel Services Limited to the Local Council Association and to its members who also had private accounts with the same travel agency.

Police Inspector Ivan Cilia explained that the sum reimbursed totalled about €96,000. Hand-written invoices were issued, quoting one fare followed by a computer-printed amount that was markedly lower. For example, one ticket was marked as costing €599 when it was bought for only €446.

The accused would then claim back from the EU the full amount instead of the actual purchase price, pocketing the difference. In some cases, the difference was accredited to the association’s account and in others directly to the members.

The councillors, who are all pleading not guilty to fraud and committing a crime they were in duty bound to prevent are: the vice mayor of the Birkirkara, Doris Borg, 76, of Birkirkara; the former mayor of Mellieħa, Joseph Borg, 71, from Mellieħa; the mayor of San Lawrenz, Noel Formosa, 39, of San Lawrenz; the executive secretary of the Fgura local council and former secretary of the LCA, Oreste Alessandro, 63, of Fgura; the president of the LCA and head of the Maltese delegation to the Council of Europe’s Congress of Local and Regional Authorities, Michael Cohen, 54, of Kalkara; Qrendi local councillor and LCA member, Claudette Abela Baldacchino, 38, of Qrendi and former LCA president and Ġzira local councillor, lawyer Ian Micallef, 42, of Ġzira.

The director of KD Travel Services Limited, Kenneth DeMartino, 51, of Swieqi, and the company’s general manager, Paul Cortis, 56, of Naxxar are also pleading not guilty to fraud.

The discrepancies surfaced as a result of parallel invoicing, investigating officer Neil Thomson, from OLAF, testified.

The investigations focused on the period between February 2004 and February 2007. A number of documents were seized from the offices of the LCA and the travel agency. These included sales and purchasing ledgers, accounts, bank statements and e-mails.

Under cross examination by lawyer Emanuel Mallia, Mr Thomson said that he was not aware of a report drawn up by OLAF that had concluded that similar cases in other countries were the result of improper guidelines on travel and misunderstanding.

Dr Mallia asked Mr Thomson whether he received a subsistence allowance since he worked for the EU and the witness said he did.

The lawyer wanted to know whether the witness would still claim the full amount if, say, he received an allowance of €1,000 but spent less.

Mr Thomson said he would if the amount was paid to him automatically.

The case was put off to February.

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