The justice ministry has returned to the selection committee the name of the preferred candidate to take over the agency responsible for confiscating criminals’ assets.

The Asset Recovery Bureau has not had a chief executive officer for some five months, despite it being one of the worst performers in an ongoing review of the country’s anti-money laundering regime.

Times of Malta understands that the preferred candidate selected to lead the entity some two months ago is Police Superintendent George Cremona who heads the force’s counter-terrorism unit.

According to sources close to the agency, Justice Minister Edward Zammit Lewis has flagged concerns that Cremona may have a conflict of interest in taking over the role as he is married to Magistrate Monica Vella.

However, a source on the ARB board said they saw no issue with the matter and expressed frustration at the move to reject a “well qualified and suitable candidate”.

Contacted for comment, Zammit Lewis would only say that he was consulting with the ARB on the matter. The minister is obliged at law to consult the board before taking a final decision.

The ARB used to be headed by Brian Farrugia, who left to take up the helm of another new agency responsible for assisting the victims of crime.

The delay in appointing a new director was described as “nerve-wracking” by sources within the bureau, who raised concerns over how the entity fared when it was reviewed by international assessors.

Last month, experts from the Financial Action Task Force met with the heads of the country’s law enforcement and regulatory bodies involved in the fight against money laundering. 

The visit is part of the process that will lead to the decision on whether the country will be put on a list of untrustworthy financial jurisdictions, known as the grey list.

The Sunday Times of Malta reported that the FATF had sent a long to-do list to the finance ministry, with the ARB’s poor performance among the shortcomings highlighted.

Years in limbo

This is not the first time that the criminal asset confiscation body has been left in the lurch. 

It was previously reported that ARB spent years in limbo after the justice ministry failed to give it the necessary legal tools to function. It was set up by law in 2015 but its operations were stunted, with some regulations not having been brought into force for a couple of years.

The government at the time had argued that it was carrying out "capacity building" to try and set up an entity that had never been delivered by past administrations. 

In 2019, reports said that the bureau was left in the lurch after the police commissioner and the inland revenue commissioner said staff shortages did not allow them to assign full-time officers to work there.

The bureau ended up in hot water last year when it sold off a Ferrari, owned by a suspected drug dealer, despite him never being convicted of a crime in Malta.

The court had ordered the attorney general to pay the car’s original owner €70,000 in compensation.

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