Seven plead guilty and get suspended sentences
Heftiest penalty likely to be general interdiction
The first seven men to plead guilty in the VAT department scam yesterday were given suspended sentences, three of them also being fined about €1,800 between them.
They also got a general interdiction, which basically removes their legal status in matters such as voting and being party to a contract of any kind.
VAT employee Carmel Deguara faced a maximum 10 years imprisonment and a fine of over €45,000 after he admitted to accepting bribes and disclosing professional secrets.
The rest were facing a similar if slightly lighter sentence but the charges varied from bribery and fraud to trading in influence. They were the first to be arraigned out of a total of 32 people (six VAT department employees, six "go-betweens" and 20 businessmen) who are expected to be charged over the case, which has shaken one of the government's largest revenue streams.
Lawyer Edward Gatt, who was the first to make his case for his three clients - Mr Deguara, 38-year-old middleman Jesmond Abela and businessman Neville Mula, 26 - pointed out that his clients fell under the remit of a suspended sentence.
Another three guilty pleas followed by 54-year-old Sebastian Bonnici, businessman Maurice Agius, 66, and Medairco director Anthony Migneco, 62.
Eventually the hearings were postponed but not before three of the accused, Munther Ananbeh, Ludwig Camilleri and Adrian Debono, were fined €100 for contempt of court after they failed to appear when summoned.
Besides the fines (the highest amounting to €700), the heftiest penalty for those sentenced will likely be the general interdiction, which means that, from here on, they will not be able to perform any form of civil acts, such as selling or buying property, sign official documents, such as contracts, hold a public office or even vote.
The suspended sentences (the highest being a two-year jail term suspended for four years) means that they will not serve time in jail if they go through the period in which the judgment is operative without committing another crime.
Mr Abela was the first to plead guilty to the charges of bribery and fraud. He was given an 18-month jail term suspended for four years.
Mr Mula of Għargħur, who got an identical judgment, was approached by the man believed to be the mastermind, Nigel Abela, who reduced some €11,500 in VAT fines to about €4,750.
Mr Deguara, of Marsascala, admitted to bribery and corruption after he took about €466 to issue an unwarranted VAT refund. He also admitted to disclosing professional information. He was given a two-year jail term suspended for four and fined €450.
Mr Agius, of Swieqi, owed the department over €7,000 in fines and late payments. He approached Nigel Abela and paid him €2,330 to reduce the amounts. The court handed down an 11-month jail term suspended for three years.
Mr Migneco, of Attard, tried to get a reduction on the €198,400 he owed the VAT Department. He was given an 18-month jail term suspended for four years.
Another businessman, Gregory Brincat, 49, of Madliena, pleaded guilty to bribery and fraud. Defence counsel Joseph Giglio said his client had acted on behalf of four companies that were unaware of what was going on and had since paid the department the full amount owed.
Mr Brincat was given an 18-month jail term suspended for four years and fined €700.
Mr Bonnici, of Qormi, also pleaded guilty to bribery, fraud and submitting false VAT returns. He was given an 18-month jail term suspended for four years and fined €700.
The scam was initially based on taking bribes for waiving fines on late VAT returns, with a department official, a businessman and two middlemen being involved, according to police sources.
Many people were unaware that it was the government's policy to waive them anyway when a business fell in line because fines on late VAT returns are draconian. Eventually, the matter developed into a full blown scam in which businessmen who owed money to the department would end up being owed money themselves.