Updated 3.37pm with details of the judgment
A number of serving and former mayors and officials from a travel agency and the Local Councils Association have been cleared of fraud that allegedly took place 11 years ago in the purchase of flight tickets.
Paul Cortis, general manager at KD travel Services Ltd, Oreste Alessandro, former Secretary of Local Councils Association, Dolores Borg, former Birkirkara, mayor, Guzeppi Borg, former Mellieħa mayor, Noel Formosa, mayor of San Lawrenz, Claudette Abela Baldacchino, vice-mayor, Qrendi, and Michael Cohen president of the LCA were accused of misappropriation and fraud to the detriment of the association.
They were also accused of complicity in making a false declaration as public officials.
The case was originally flagged by the Committee of the Regions back in 2007 while the charges dated back to 2010.
In 2007 the Committee of the Regions had flagged potential irregularities by the Maltese delegation when claiming reimbursement for flight tickets for work-related travel between 2004 and 2007.
The Court of Auditors also voiced similar concern, claiming that flight ticket prices were being purposely inflated.
A delegation from OLAF traveled to Malta and together with officers from the Internal Audit Investigating Department (IAID) carried out spot checks at the Sliema offices of the travel agency as well as at the LCA’s offices where a number of documents were seized.
Criminal action was instituted against a number of officials.
When delivering judgment on Wednesday in separate proceedings against seven of those officials, the Court, presided over by magistrate Josette Demicoli, observed that on the strength of local and EU judgments, statements given by the accused without legal assistance, at a time when such a right was not applicable at law, were not admissible in evidence.
Evidence put forward showed that the accused’s intention had never been to defraud.
The former president of the Maltese delegation, lawyer Ian Micallef, had testified about how he had sought advice from an auditor who, in turn, said that the advice given was in line with an EU Directive.
The suggestion was to make maximum use of the allowance granted by the EU.
The court observed that although certain verifications were lacking, the accounts of the LCA were audited and also tabled in Parliament.
That fact gave members of the delegation additional peace of mind that matters were being handled properly.
The travel agency would issue handwritten receipts, mostly for €599 per ticket, then issue computerized receipts for smaller amounts, representing the actual prices.
It was alleged that the councillors would claim reimbursement for the higher price and pocket the difference.
However, the court observed that the letter ‘D’ on each boarding pass presented when claiming the refund, clearly indicated that the ticket was discounted.
Therefore there was nothing to hint that things were being done in an underhand manner.
Moreover, written correspondence between the general secretary of the Committee of Regions and Micallef, added further reassurance that the issue had been resolved.
A 2007 email read that, “the result of these controls is positive in so far as the Association and its President and Vice-President were able to demonstrate that all invoices presented to the Committee……were also effectively paid to KD Travel.”
From then on, the delegation was instructed that “expenditure should correspond to the class of air ticket that is presented for reimbursement.”
The court also noted that the prosecution had failed to produce evidence about the personal bank accounts of the councillors.
The money granted under the EU allowance had not been paid under any particular title and therefore the offence of misappropriation did not exist.
Nor was the alleged complicity in supplying false information proved, said Magistrate Demicoli, thus clearing all accused.
Lawyers Emmanuel Mallia, Ezekiel Psaila and Dustin Camilleri assisted Doris Borg, Alessandro, Abela Baldacchino and Cohen.
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