Two VAT fraud aquittals on lack of evidence
Two businessmen have been acquitted of bribing a VAT official after the prosecution failed to present basic evidence in court and the statements they had given to the police were thrown out because they had no access to a lawyer during investigations.
The only evidence left for Magistrate Doreen Clarke to consider were the documents presented by the police consisting of VAT returns and even those could not provide enough evidence by law to convict the men of corruption.
Although suspicious, the returns alone did not provide enough proof that the men had intentionally tried to defraud the government, the magistrate said.
The men, Paul Grech, 43, an importer from Magħtab, and panel beater Stephen Buhagiar, 40, from Msida, were among a group of 32 people charged over a fraud scam at the VAT Department that first came to light in 2009.
Their VAT returns were allegedly altered by the suspected mastermind, VAT official Nigel Abela, to make it seem as if they were owed money by the department instead of owing money. The cash would then allegedly be split between Mr Abela and the businessmen.
But the police did not even present evidence to establish who Mr Abela was and how he was connected to the case.
The prosecuting police officer, Angelo Gafa, also failed to establish if he was a public official, if he fraudulently handled the VAT returns or even if the men had offered him a bribe to fix the returns, the magistrate said.
On top of this, she could not take into consideration their police statements because they had no access to a lawyer during investigations.
Mr Abela, 40, is facing a list of charges that include receiving bribes, corruption of VAT officials, money laundering, lending money without a licence, misappropriation and cocaine possession.
He can face up to a maximum of 14 years in prison and a €500,000 fine.
The police believe he pocketed some €186,000 from the scam, which they said he used to fuel a drug habit.
Mr Grech and Mr Buhagiar were charged with corrupting Mr Abela and defrauding the government.