- Hundreds implicated in fraudulent severe disability claims
- Racket mushroomed as word spread within Labour circles
- Claimants in court, pin blame on ex-Labour MP
- Castille implicated during police probe, OPM rejects claims
- Middlemen suspected to have muscled in on the racket
Ex-Labour MP Silvio Grixti has been implicated in a years-long racket to help “hundreds” of people fraudulently receive monthly disability benefits they were not entitled to.
Evidence seen by Times of Malta indicates Grixti, a popular family doctor, provided false medical documents to help people, often hailing from Labour strongholds like Żabbar, Żejtun and Paola, to receive monthly social benefits for severe disabilities they did not suffer from.
The fraud saw the claimants receive monthly payments averaging €450 from the social security department.
Some of the people introduced into the racket in 2019 and 2020 have claimed to police investigators that they were referred to Grixti by a Labour minister, a now deceased PL MP, ministers’ aides, and even customer care officials from the Prime Minister’s office.
Police, with little fanfare, have over the past weeks and months been charging dozens of claimants who benefitted from the racket.
The majority of those arraigned in court have admitted to the charges and agreed to return their ill-gotten gains, thus getting off with a suspended sentence for defrauding the government.
Grixti has yet to be charged for his suspected key role in facilitating the racket.
Grixti declined to comment when contacted via his lawyers Franco Debono and Arthur Azzopardi.
That man at Castille and Grixti were angels to me because I was so desperate at the time- unemployed woman
Grixti resigned from parliament in December 2021, shortly after being detained and questioned by police in connection with the alleged racket.
A laptop seized in connection with the probe helped uncover the scale and organisation of the racket.
Two sources privy to the ongoing police investigations said the figure of false disability claims emanating from the racket could yet reach around 800.
Times of Malta was unable to independently verify the exact figure, and both the police and Social Policy Ministry did not give details about the scale of the fraud when approached for comment.
The sources said the racket became renowned enough within Labour circles to take a life of its own, with some claimants telling police they obtained the forged certificates from people other than Grixti.
A spokesman for the PM’s office denied that any customer care officials had ever suggested that any disability claimant or medical practitioner commit any irregularity, and there was no evidence that customer care employees were aware of these “alleged irregularities”.
The PM’s office had “immediately” reported a suspicious disability claim case to the police, when it was brought to the office’s attention, the spokesman added.
How did the racket work?
Grixti, who at the time was a backbench MP, would allegedly give people an envelope containing medical documents certified by several Maltese consultants, all saying that they examined the benefit claimant and found them to be suffering from a severe disability.
The ‘severe disability’ of choice for the racket was claims of suffering from frequent epileptic fits.
In order to qualify for the social benefits, claimants would need to provide certification from either a neurologist or psychiatrist.
Proof would also be needed that the disability claimant carried out what is known as an electroencephalogram, a specialist test used to measure the electrical activity of the brain.
All these documents appear to have been forged as part of the racket, which mushroomed over the years.
The medical specialists named in the documents – who include Mater Dei Hospital neurologists and other medical professionals – have told police investigators they had never even seen the patients they had supposedly certified, let alone signed off on documents saying they suffer from a severe disability.
In order to qualify for the social benefits, claimants would need to provide certification from either a neurologist or psychiatrist
Documents reviewed by Times of Malta indicate that the racket was impressive in its detail.
The package of forged documents, presented to the social security department, even included a false Transport Malta declaration saying that the claimant had surrendered his or her driver’s licence, which is a requirement for people who suffer from frequent epileptic fits.
Some of the disability claimants, who include a police officer, have confirmed to investigators that the Transport Malta document was also falsified, as they never even surrendered their driver’s licences.
Transport Malta officials have similarly told police that the licence return documents were forged.
Disability claimants have told investigators that the forged documents would then be assessed by a government medical board, which would carry out a perfunctory interview with the claimant to ensure all was in order with their application.
In some instances, claimants say the medical board’s interview would last all of “five minutes”.
Weeks after appearing before the government board, the people would start receiving average monthly payments of €450.
Several constituents and patients of Grixti, who were illegally receiving the benefits told police they have been blighted by other severe illnesses for years. They had cancers – multiple slip disks, and diseases of the heart, kidneys, lungs and colon – and had authentic medical certificates to prove them. It is just that none of these illnesses made them eligible for the Severe Disability Assistance Benefit.
Others were injured at work, had been out of a decent-paying job for months and were struggling to put food on their families’ tables. In justifying the fraud, certain claimants said the situation was so dire during the COVID pandemic that they had to choose whether to buy food or medicine.
They were therefore happy to learn that Grixti had an easy solution to get them some extra cash. One unemployed woman was so desperate for money at the time that she described him as her “guardian angel”.
The woman told investigators that an official at Castille told her to go to Grixti “because he knows what he should do and maybe can help”.
“That man at Castille and Grixti were angels to me because I was so desperate at the time,” she said.
Some disability claimants had initially spoken to Grixti about their ordeal because he had been their family doctor for many years and had accompanied them through dark times.
Others claim they sought help from a minister’s aide and others say they were referred to Grixti after going to the Office of the Prime Minister’s customer care section in Castille, asking for “some extra help”.
It is unclear whether the people who allegedly referred the benefits claimants to Grixti were aware of the racket and whether they intentionally meant to help the patients defraud the government.
Some of the claimants now facing justice, however, appear to feel they have been betrayed by the Labour government.
One woman, whose relative was among 14 people charged last week, last Tuesday shouted out in the court building: “Robert Abela won’t get away with this,” as her daughter awaited her time in the dock to face justice.
Owen Bonnici, Silvio Parnis
At least one man hailing from Żejtun told the police that minister Owen Bonnici referred them to Grixti.
Bonnici, however, vehemently denied the claim when contacted by Times of Malta.
“Dr Grixti and I were, during most part of the last legislature, two members of the same parliamentary group who contested on the same electoral district.
“I have never referred any person to Dr Grixti for any service whatsoever. Any claim to the contrary is a baseless fabrication and is therefore a complete and utter lie,” Bonnici said.
Dr Grixti and I were, during most part of the last legislature, two members of the same parliamentary group who contested on the same electoral district- Owen Bonnici
Another two benefit claimants, both hailing from Paola, said it was the late Labour MP Silvio Parnis who helped them claim the benefits.
For several years the racket appears to have worked unhindered, with nobody apparently batting an eyelid or growing suspicious about the large number of claims for severe disability benefits.
According to sources familiar with the investigation, “middlemen” are suspected to have muscled in on the racket, in exchange for a kickback once the claimant successfully applied for disability benefits using the forged documents.
‘Everyone does it’
Many claimants knew that they were getting the money illegally and some of them told the medical board they suffered from epilepsy and even attempted to describe to the board what symptoms they have during epileptic fits, despite never having experienced those symptoms.
One healthy young woman, who works as a manager, told police she knew she was in the wrong, but she took the money anyway because “everyone does it” and said if the money comes from nowhere, there is no reason to refuse it.
Another woman hailing from Żejtun said she did it to help her family.
One benefits claimant admitted he was worried about going to the medical board with false information such as having to tell them he returned his driver’s licence, but said Grixti told him “do not worry”.
“Everyone likes to get a few extra pennies,” a Marsa resident told police.
“I did not think about the consequences. I never discussed this with anyone else.”
Patients trusted Grixti blindly
Some claimants have given police the impression they had no idea they should not have been getting the money.
They told police Grixti was extremely nice to them and genuinely seemed interested in helping them cope with their problems.
Several of them had been Grixti’s patients for a long time, he had accompanied them in the darkest times of their illnesses and they trusted him so blindly that they did not even bother to open the envelope he gave them.
They say they did not ask him what it contained, he did not tell them and they just handed it over to the medical board, oblivious to the fact that it contained forged documents and signed declarations that would eventually land them in hot water.
They told police they just knew it was an illness-related benefit and that they had been in and out of so many major surgeries and were suffering from so many illnesses that they saw no reason why they would not be eligible for this illness-related benefit.
The patients told police Grixti was always compassionate and eager to alleviate their suffering, and in some cases did not even charge them for the service. He simply told them there is a government benefit that he would help them apply for.
They claim they were not aware Grixti was certifying that they suffer from illnesses they did not have.
Even after being called in by the police and after being told Grixti had got her into a lot of trouble, one woman continues to feel grateful to the doctor, telling police she still trusts him blindly and that all her family will continue to use his services.
Lawyer Jason Azzopardi, who is one of several defence counsels for a number of the accused, has lately been hinting at the racket on his social media accounts, calling out the authorities for targeting the most vulnerable people in the racket, instead of the big fish.
Some people admitted to the police the benefit is their family’s lifeline. They said when it stops and they are forced to return the money they received, they will likely fall into the poverty trap.
How big was the racket?
The government and police failed to offer clarity on how much public money was funnelled out by those complicit in the racket when questioned by Times of Malta.
Severe disability claimants would receive an average of €450 monthly, as the government tended to increase the allowance on a yearly basis during the budget.
Two sources privy to the investigations have claimed as many as 800 false disability claims could have been filed over the years.
If 800 people received the €450 monthly payments for just one year, the amount defrauded would already exceed €4.3 million.
Claimants who benefitted from the fraudulent benefits racket have been reaching agreements with the social security department to return the amounts illicitly received from the scam.
If 800 people received the €450 monthly payments for just one year, the amount defrauded would already exceed €4.3 million
Those who have been receiving the money for a few years have been ordered to return between €11,000 and €25,000 each.
A police spokesperson declined to say how much money had been recovered, instead inviting Times of Malta to direct questions to “the relevant authority”.
Questions sent to the Social Policy ministry remained unanswered.
Official statistics published last year show the government spent €17.8 million on severe disability assistance in 2020, a €2 million increase over the previous year.