Seventeen people were charged in court over an alleged benefits fraud racket in which they all claimed to be suffering from epilepsy even if they held a driving licence.
Some have already been convicted and others are awaiting judgment.
Suspicions were first roused last September when officials in the department of social security were vetting medical certificates submitted by a number of applicants who claimed benefits for severe disability.
I never saw these people- Neurology specialist whose signature was forged
A number of certificates bore similarities: all the applicants claimed to be suffering from epilepsy and each certificate was phrased in similar terms. Only the dates differed.
Every certificate also appeared to have been signed and stamped by the same neurology consultant.
The Income Support and Compliance Division within the Ministry for Social Policy and Children’s Rights referred the cases to the police economic crimes unit for investigation.
When questioned by the police, the consultant in question said he had never examined those patients and that neither the signature nor the stamp on the documents were his. He had not used that stamp for the past two years.
Investigators then discovered that all the applicants were in possession of a driving licence, even though patients suffering from epilepsy are not meant to have one.
Compliance division managed to block most funds
Police inspectors Wayne Borg and Andy Rotin told the court that investigators had questioned the people whose names appeared on the suspicious applications before pressing criminal charges.
Seventeen men and women from various walks of life were subsequently accused of falsifying documents to claim a state benefit they were not entitled to. They were all charged recently under summons before Magistrate Gabriella Vella.
In the majority of the cases, the compliance division managed to block the application process before the funds were paid out, the court heard.
Others refunded the full amounts and others still owe varying amounts to the department.
George Cremona, director at the Income Support and Compliance Division, testified that an internal investigation was triggered when the suspicious medical certificates first caught the attention of department officials.
He said applications submitted on the department’s online platform or at any servizz.gov hub, together with the relevant medical certificate, were regularly vetted by a medical board which would then issue its recommendations.
In 2022, severe disability assistance translated into a weekly allowance of €109.52 that was payable every four weeks in advance.
Two neurology specialists whose signature appeared on the medical certificates also testified.
“I never saw these people [the accused],” the first witness stressed, confirming that the wording, the signature and the stamp on the certificates were false.
The second specialist confirmed that the wording on the documents was false and the signature was “copy and paste” of a previous version of her signature.
Admissions registered at first hearing
A number of those charged registered an admission at the first hearing.
A 60-year-old unemployed Valletta resident who had not received any funds was handed a 13-month jail term suspended for two years.
Her lawyers, José Herrera and Matthew Xuereb, said she had “unknowingly” landed in trouble, never had any previous brush with the law and had thus taken it very badly.
A 61-year-old Qormi housewife got the same punishment after her lawyers also highlighted her clean criminal record and the fact that no benefits had yet been paid when the fraudulent application was tracked down.
A 40-year-old man from Qormi was handed a one-year jail term suspended for two years after admitting to the attempted fraud. The court took note of the early guilty plea, his relatively clean criminal record and the fact that he had cooperated with investigators.
Another man who received some €2,900 in benefits was handed a two-year jail term suspended for four years after the court also took note of his early admission, his clean criminal record and the fact that all the money had been refunded.
Among those charged, others have registered an admission and are awaiting judgment while some are contesting the charges brought against them.