Ex-footballer Darren Debono’s step-daughter and a former high-ranking bank official, who fronted companies that manage two fish restaurants allegedly involved in laundering money linked to oil smuggling, have been charged in court. 

Florinda Sultana, 29, and Albert Buttigieg, now-retired former head of unit, corporate banking at BNF Bank plc, pleaded not guilty to a raft of charges when proceedings kicked off against them.

Both are facing criminal action in their personal capacity, while Sultana also stands charged as former director of Nesvan Company Ltd and MSI Catering Ltd and Buttigieg as director of Luzzu Catering Ltd, the operators of Porticello and Capo Mulini restaurants, respectively.

Sultana and Buttigieg were targeted by search and arrest warrants late last year during the extensive police anti-smuggling operation, which netted former footballers Darren Debono and Jeffrey Chetcuti, as well as auditor Chris Baldacchino over similar money laundering charges.

Investigators working on unraveling the workings of a suspect organised crime group, allegedly involved in a €30 million fuel smuggling racket, had traced these restaurant-owning companies with links to Debono who was arrested in December and released on bail last week.

All companies had the same Swieqi-based address and shared a host of similar features including a pattern of banking transactions, money trails and day-to-day operations, as well as a common warranted auditor.

Trail leads to fish restaurants

When testifying at the start of criminal proceedings against Sultana and Buttigieg, inspector James Turner gave details about investigations into the Valletta and Marsaxlokk restaurants, both specialising in fish.

These adopted the same payment method and each had its own ePOS system, whereby the daily cash flow was not deposited, thus avoiding questions by banks, the inspector explained.

While Sultana had familial ties to Debono, Buttigieg allegedly serviced the former footballer when heading corporate banking at Banif Bank, affording internal assistance that enabled the client to bypass the system and avoid detection of financial layering.

When a police search party, armed with an arrest warrant, turned up early one November morning at Sultana’s Mosta home, the suspect chose to remain silent.

A search of her home yielded some €52,000 in cash, various branded items including Gucci and Armani and 10 watches, including a Rolex, large glass jars containing banknotes and coins as well as documents linked to sales at Porticello, Capo Mulini, Silver Horse and Onda Blu restaurants.

The woman was later questioned and asked to explain possession of those items as well as an Audi A1, the acquisition of which could not be linked to any bank transaction.

Three boxes of valuables seized

Inspector Danilo Francalanza, from the anti-money laundering unit, presented three boxes of seized “valuables” when testifying about his role in the search at Sultana’s home.

Another officer from the unit, PS Francesco Farrugia, described the search at Albert Buttigieg’s Swieqi residence one December morning at 6am, seizing a number of documents and electronic devices.

The search party had then moved on to Marsaxlokk, searching Capo Mulini and two interconnected garages behind the restaurant and seizing other documents and devices.

Under interrogation, Buttigieg had failed to explain how the business, claimed to face an uphill struggle, had still managed to register takings of €1 million.

Questions were also asked about refurbishment works at the restaurant and the involvement of Spiridione (known as Daimer) Goodlip who allegedly took instructions from Debono.

As proceedings kicked off, the court, presided over by magistrate Donatella Frendo Dimech, confirmed a freezing order on all assets of the accused while also confirming an earlier order by the Criminal Court allowing the targeted restaurants to continue to operate under supervision while the freezing order remains in place.

The court also appointed an IT expert to analyze the devices for information relevant to the charges.

The case continues.

Lawyers Stefano Filletti and Martina Cuschieri are defence counsel.

Inspectors Joseph Xerri, James Turner and Omar Caruana are prosecuting, assisted by Attorney General lawyers Antoine Agius Bonnici and Cinzia Azzopardi Alamango.

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