The Malta Independent 20 May 2024, Monday
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Dirty Oil: Italians make another arrest; seize €55 million in assets

David Lindsay Sunday, 28 October 2018, 08:30 Last update: about 7 years ago

The Italian authorities made another arrest on Friday and seized €55 million in assets linked to the Dirty Oil investigation in which Maltese nationals Darren Debono and Gordon Debono were arrested last October.

An Italian residing in London, named as 51-year-old Antonio Desiata, has been arrested and assets in the form of 29 million litres of fuel, 11 properties in Genoa, Trieste and Abbiategrasso and a 14-metre yacht were seized. They are part of the investigation that has uncovered a racket of fuel smuggled out of the mostly lawless Libya, to Malta and then onward to Italy.


Italian prosecutors allege that between 2016 and 2017 over 350 million litres of fuel were smuggled from Malta to Italy via 30 voyages carried out by Maltese tankers owned by the Debonos, which were resold at a cut price on the Italian 'white pump' market later.

Friday's action saw the Guardia di Finanza of Varese carrying out an order for the pre-trial detention of Desiata and the simultaneous seizure of assets worth over €55 million ordered by the Courts of Milan at the request of Milan's Public Prosecutor.

The Milan Public Prosecutor's Office believes it has discovered the illicit importation and sale in Italy of over 350 million litres of fuel, amounting to VAT losses of €55 million for the Treasury. It has arrested Desiata, from Trieste, in his capacity as the de facto administrator of the Rome-based Oilchem ​​srl and of the Milan-based Xcel Petroleum - companies operating in the wholesale of petroleum products. He is being charged with international VAT fraud on a massive scale.

Milan prosecutors have accused him of fraud on the international extension of VAT in the fuel-trading sector, the issuance and use of invoices for non-existent operations, the destruction and concealment of accounting documentation and with money laundering.

The fuel in question was sourced from Libya and arrived in Italy via a Maltese ship owner's tanker, who was unnamed but was said to have been arrested in October 2017 as part of the 'Dirty Oil' investigation. That would undoubtedly be Darren Debono and/or Gordon Debono.

The fuel was subsequently distributed, with false invoices, between the various front companies belonging to the racket in favour of commercial depots and roadside distributors belonging to the so-called 'white pumps' circuit scattered throughout Italy, i.e. service stations not belonging to the major petrol brands.

The cancellation of VAT throughout the supply chain has allegedly allowed the sale of fuel on the Italian market at prices much lower than those charged by competitors, creating an effect of unfair competition.

Among the other suspects are the legal representatives of Oilchem ​​srl - Lorenzo Sassi and Luciano Seregni - and of Xcel Petroleum - Angelo Iacobino - and accountant Luciano Bologna. The latter is a professor of marketing contracts at the University La Sapienza in Rome, a former tax judge, and an attorney.

The Guardia di Finanza of Varese and Milan prosecutor Paolo Filippini have identified Xcel Petroleum srl as, "The main beneficiary of the undue tax advantages obtained through fictitious interpositions of front companies" such as the Oilchem ​​srl, which, according to prosecutors had no staff, its premises had no address plates, had no furniture and only one computer, and was located in a 15 square metre cavity adjacent to an elevator in a shopping centre.

The investigating judge wrote: "Desiata's company, buying at a value significantly lower than its competitors, was able to conquer the national supply market through the systematic evasion of VAT."

The operation, dubbed, 'XP' - conducted with telephone interceptions, searches, seizures, analysis of computer media, bank checks and accounting records - allowed investigators to place the Milan company operating from Genoa at the centre of the fraud as the main beneficiary of the illegal tax advantages obtained through the fictitious interpositions of companies that had no concrete role in the commercialisation of the product.

Among the assets seized so far by the Varese Guardia di Finanza are about 29 million litres of fuel (gasoline and diesel fuel with an estimated commercial value of over €44 million), 11 buildings in Genoa, Trieste and Abbiategrasso, a car, a motorcycle, a 14-metre yacht seized in Civitavecchia and current accounts worth over €1.3 million.

Darren and Gordon Debono still electronically tagged, on bail and prevented from leaving Italy

Two of the Maltese accused in Italy of the 'Dirty Oil' scandal, Darren Debono and Gordon Debono, who oversaw the smuggling of tens of millions of euros of contraband fuel from Libya to Europe via Malta, are still out on bail after their arrest in Italy in October last year.

Italian police sources, speaking to this newspaper, have confirmed that the two Maltese nationals have, since their release on bail, had electronic tagging devices affixed to their wrists and are prevented from leaving Italian soil.

Such a machine gives the current location of people fitted with the device, and sets off alarm bells if the wearer ventures outside the area to which he is confined.

Between June 2015 and June 2016, Italian authorities registered 31 illegal shipments of contraband fuel, comprising 82 million cubic metres of petrol they believe was purchased for €27 million and was worth €51 million on the market. €11 million in taxes are believed to have been evaded in that process.

Last October, after two years of phone tapping, the Italian authorities moved in on the Debonos. Darren Debono was apprehended in Lampedusa and Gordon Debono was arrested in Catania.

The Daphne Project had recently reported that the Libya-Malta-Europe fuel smuggling ring run by the Debonos, together with Libyan and Sicilian associates linked to the Mafia, earned the operation up to €26 million in just one year through a single Italian buyer. It is not known if that buyer was Desiata or another one as the dates of the shipments appear to overlap but do not exactly coincide. This could mean there were multiple channels in Italy for the illicit Libyan fuel smuggled through Malta.

The Daphne Project had sourced hundreds of Italian police files, corporate documents, marine data and United Nations reports, and corroborative interviews have been carried out by the Investigative Report Project Italy (IRPI).

The results reportedly show a multi-million-dollar operation was "carried out under Maltese authorities' noses".

In response to questions about the leaked files and the ongoing operation, the Maltese police are quoted as saying that they could do nothing about the operation because the smuggling took place outside Malta's territorial waters.

The Italian police, however, believe this not to be entirely true, as tankers filled in Libya made ship-to-ship transfers at the edge of Hurd's Bank, a shallow area on the periphery of Maltese territorial waters - under Malta's remit.

The Daphne Project had reported how marine surveillance logs showed tankers owned by the Debonos - including the Barbosa Star, Sea Master X and Amazing F - being observed either transferring illegal shipments onto larger tankers at Hurd's Bank or directly emptying their shipments at a dolphin in the Marsa area of the Grand Harbour. It is believed that the dolphin, through which the fuel is pumped onshore, was connected to the Ħas-Saptan storage facilities, reportedly leased to the Swiss Kolmar Group AG.

The Daphne Project reports go on to say that the same marine surveillance logs show the tankers emptying fuel into the storage tanks of the Maltese San Lucian Oil Company in Birżebbuġa.

The players

Italian investigators, it is said, believe that Libyan fuel was smuggled out of the country with the assistance of a militia led by Fahmi Ben Khalifa, a business associate of Darren Debono.

Oil refineries near the port city of Zuwara, in northwestern Libya, are believed to have been under Ben Khalifa's control, allowing the diversion of tankers filled with refined diesel to Libyan ports.

The Daphne Project says that fishing boats containing large storage tanks were taken out to sea, while smaller tankers owned by the Debonos would wait for ship-to-ship transfers.

Italian investigators reportedly identified many such tankers involved in the operation. Fuel then made its way to mainland Europe through more conventional channels.

Italian investigators are said to have found a third channel through which Libya's smuggled oil was moved through Malta. Through wire-tapping, Italian law enforcement is said to have discovered how ships owned by the Debonos were used to unload smuggled fuel to a vessel at sea after which the small tankers were quickly sent back to Libya.

A vessel owned by the Debonos appears to have operated as a floating fuel station in Malta's territorial waters.

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