The developing scandal: beyond the obvious

On 20 December 2021 the media informed us that Labour MP Silvio Grixti was resigning his Parliamentary seat. The reason for his resignation was not clear. It was however understood to be connected to “fraudulent sick leave certificates” in respect of which he was interrogated by the Police and subsequently released on police bail.

No details were released twenty-one months ago. The media were most probably given false leads as a number of outlets compared the Silvio Grixti case to the probe on sickness certificates then under way on PN MP Stephen Spiteri.

With the benefit of hindsight, it is clear that Silvio Grixti needed to shoulder total responsibility for whatever had happened, immediately. It was on the eve of a general election and the actual scandal details had to remain under wraps. Otherwise, it could develop out of control, and that was too risky on the eve of a general election. It would have defeated the whole purpose of the scam: the purchase of votes through the fraudulent use of social services.

The scandal, briefly explained, so far is known to involve around 800 persons who received a “severe disability pension”. . The amounts involved vary and are in the region of €450 per month per person. To benefit, proof in the form of specialised medical certification has to be submitted.

In a highly organised manner, a number of Labour Party supporters who were declaring with their social contacts that they did not intend to vote during the 2022 general elections were approached by persons linked to the Labour Party. This Labour Party “customer care group” offered these voters the possibility of receiving a financial benefit in the form of a severe disability pension. A number took the bait and were supplied with forged medical certificates to submit to the Social Security authorities in order that they start receiving a monthly cheque.

Some queried how this was possible when they did not have the ailments which would entitle them to receive the pension. Last week Newsbook published an interview with one such person. She explained how on the eve of the general election she received a phone call from the customer care unit of the Office of the Prime Minister. The person calling, whom she identified, discussed with her the reasons for considering not voting. She then suggested that she apply for the severe disability pension. As she queried her eligibility, she even received emails from the OPM customer care officer with details of the application.

There are other similar stories linking persons close to the Labour Party to this social benefit scam. It is also being claimed that in some cases kickbacks were involved! The allegations are being made relative to middlemen and canvassers of some Minister currently in office!

This is a case of organised crime. The mastermind/s has/have kept their distance from those actively involved in order to try and avoid identification!

More details are being published as individual cases are being decided by the Courts. The misapplied social benefits are being refunded and suspended prison sentences are being applied. However only some 20 per cent of the identified cases have been concluded. Moreover, it is only the beneficiaries that have been arraigned to date. The middlemen and those producing the forged documents have not been publicly identified so far. It is clear that Silvio Grixti is definitely not alone! However, no one has been publicly identified yet, except the customer care officer at the OPM! Who are the others?

Why is it taking so long to bring all those involved to justice?  This includes the identification and prosecution of the mastermind/s. The police have known about the case, at least, since when they interrogated Silvio Grixti, 21 months ago.

It is not only a case of the fraudulent receipt of social benefits. It is also an issue of corrupt practices. Unfortunately, no legal action can be taken in respect of corrupt (electoral) practices as such action is limited to a time frame of three days from the official publication of the general election results.

The police lack of action for such a long time enabled the scam to reap its primary dividends: that of exchanging votes with fraudulent social benefits. In addition, the police inaction ended up protecting the Labour Party which did not have to face the music when it really mattered: before the March 2022 general elections.

The public inquiry led by Mr Justice (retired) Antonio Mizzi will be examining the technical aspects of the social security application process to ensure that possibly there would not be a repetition of this scam. It is unlikely however that it will identify the masterminds and the middlemen and women! That is beyond its terms of remit. Only after the mastermind/s has/have been identified, and after they have faced the music, will justice have been served.

There is also a political responsibility to be shouldered. Everything points towards the Labour Party. If Robert Abela was a decent politician, he would have immediately accepted political responsibility as party leader and stood down. When he is eventually cornered, Abela will shift the blame on someone else. Decent men and women have resigned from public office for much less than that!

Carmel Cacopardo
ADPD Deputy Chairperson
Published in The Malta Independent – Sunday 17 September 2023