A gaming company with alleged Mafia links continued to operate from Malta despite having its licence cancelled by the regulator, the Times of Malta has learnt.

The Investigative Reporting Project Italy (IRPI), which forms part of the Daphne Project, found that the Gżira-based gaming company, Leaderbet, continued to operate even after its parent company, LB Group, had its licence cancelled in February.

A spokesman for the Malta Gaming Authority told Times of Malta a police report against Leaderbet was filed last month.

The spokesman said the gaming watchdog requested an investigation into whether the company was still undertaking gambling activities in or from Malta following the licence cancellation.

Investigations were ongoing, the spokesman added.

A day earlier, the MGA said in a statement, reports published by the Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, La Repubblica and the Times of Malta about allegations of gaming companies in Malta having links to the mafia, contained “factual inaccuracies, speculation, untruths and a misleading portrayal of the MGA and the way it operates”.

Palermo court issued 26 arrest warrants

“The latest published articles refer to rehashed stories on which enforcement action has already been taken accordingly by the MGA,” it said.

LB Group’s licence was cancelled after a Palermo court issued 26 arrest warrants in an operation called Game Over.

The investigation probed the extent of ties between Italian organised crime and the gaming industry in Malta.

Court records made available to the IRPI show that LB Group operated in Palermo through a man nicknamed “Jonathan”, who was allegedly supported by the Partinico and Resuttanta mafia families, members of the Palermo-based Cosa Nostra.

The court records further claim that LB Group was managed by an even more powerful Cosa Nostra branch from Mazara del Vallo, a city in the west coast of Sicily controlled by Matteo Messina Denaro.

He has been on the run since 1993 and court records show that the prosecutors believe online gaming might have lately financed his life in hiding.

The IRPI found that the company was still working out of its Malta-based office through its flagship brand, Leaderbet.

Following the MGA’s decision to withdraw its Maltese licence, Leaderbet indicated on its website it was operating under a licence granted by the Austrian state of Carinthia to an Austrian company called Tipexbet.

In a statement to the IRPI, Tipexbet denied having authorised Leaderbet to use their licence and said they discovered the “unauthorised” use of their licence after being approached by the press.

“They used our licence with no authorisation for over a month. We have now [May 10] managed to remove our licences from their website,” a spokesman was quoted as telling the IRPI.

The LB Group told the IRPI that the MGA decided to unilaterally revoke a series of gaming licences, including Leaderbet’s, despite there being no involvement of the company in the judicial proceedings pending in Italy.

The MGA would not say whether any alleged criminal links were behind its decision to cancel LB Group’s licence. The company referred to “Jonathan” as an ordinary client with normal contracts who operated with LB Group “for a very limited period of time.”

Who owns LB Group remains a mystery as its shareholding is hidden behind fiduciaries acting on behalf of the real owners. Until 2016, LB Group’s shares were held by a Maltese trust company called GVM Holdings, part owned by David Gonzi, son of former prime minister Lawrence Gonzi.

David Gonzi was investigated in Italy over a similar trust arrangement in 2015. Prosecutors looked into his fiduciary role in companies linked to Mario Gennaro, a bookmaker with alleged ties to Calabrian Mafia families. However, no evidence of wrongdoing was found and Dr Gonzi Jnr was removed from the list of suspects. He told reporters he had “never met, spoke to, or communicated with Mario Gennaro” and that “as from December 2015, GVM has been winding down its activities”.

In theory, the MGA’s due diligence process is designed to determine who the ultimate beneficiaries of its licensees are.

However, as its spokesman told the IRPI, “there are structures that make it harder for the MGA to detect and identify the true beneficial ownership, especially when structures are offshore and the applicants provide partial or misleading information”.

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