The Malta Independent 23 May 2024, Thursday
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Disability benefits abuse: Former Labour MP’s name crops up in two court cases

Tuesday, 19 September 2023, 14:13 Last update: about 9 months ago

The name of Silvio Grixti, a former Labour MP and family doctor, came up in two separate benefits fraud cases heard in court on Tuesday.

Collectively, the cases concern €53,000 in social benefits that were alleged to have been fraudulently claimed. Grixti was identified as the doctor who provided the forged medical certificates that enabled the beneficiaries to claim benefits they were not eligible for.

Prosecuting police Inspector Michael Tabone told Magistrate Rachel Montebello that the first defendant, Josephine Spagnol, had fraudulently pocketed more than €25,000 in disability benefits.

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On the witness stand, neurologist Ruth Galea was shown a certificate she had allegedly signed for a patient named Josephine Spagnol. But the doctor said she had not issued the certificate in question, and neither had she ever seen the defendant.

“No, I did not issue the certificate,” she said, after being shown the document. Asked what led her to say that, the neurologist specified “the way it is written, the use of capitals and bold, the sentence construction, and it contains abbreviations that I don’t usually use in certificates.”

The signature looked similar to hers and the Mater Dei letterhead seemed genuine, she said.

“I keep records and I do not have this name,” she added. The witness explained that she had searched the database using Spagnol’s name and ID card but nothing came up.

Gastroenterology specialist Valerie Anne Fenech testified next.

The prosecutor asked the witness whether she recognised anyone in the courtroom. She did not. She was shown a case summary which had been signed using her medical registration number, together with the name of another doctor, Raisa Said.

Dr Fenech said she had no connection to the case in question, nor did she work with the consultant in charge at the time the certificate had been issued in 2016. The signature on the document was not hers, she said, but said it looked like an “R. Said.”

Inspector Tabone asked the court to appoint a calligraphy expert to “compare the alleged signature of Dr Raisa Said to the signature on another application in the same file, dated 21 November 2018 which had allegedly been signed by Dr Silvio J. Grixti.”

The aim of this request was to establish whether the case summary signature had also been made by the same person who had signed the application in Grixti’s name, he said, as well as to check whether it was Spagnol who had, in fact, signed them.

Defence lawyer Alex Miruzzi consulted with his client, before informing the court that the signature on the document was that of the defendant, Spagnol, “to avoid the costs of appointing the calligraphy expert.”

The lawyer described the request concerning Dr Grixti as “problematic and strange,” because Grixti was neither a defendant, nor a party to these proceedings. He suggested that Grixti be notified with this request “in order to safeguard Grixti’s rights, as this could incriminate him.”

But the prosecution, despite the defendant’s admission that the signature on the false document was hers, insisted on the appointment of an expert to establish whether she was telling the truth.

Before adjourning the case to later this month, Magistrate Montebello announced that she would be issuing a decree on this request from chambers, after looking at the acts of the case.

Second case

In another sitting held today before the same magistrate, Aaron Caruana, 35, from Tarxien, pleaded not guilty to charges of social security fraud.

The Assistant Director at the Department of Social Security, Martin Buhagiar, told the court that Caruana had applied for disability benefits using a certificate signed by Dr Silvio Grixti, which stated that Caruana suffered from epilepsy and other serious conditions.

The man’s application was then assessed by a medical board and subsequently upheld, entitling him to receive €104.58 per week in social benefits.

There was a medical certificate issued by Grixti in the file, he said and a short case summary, also signed by Grixti. Another certificate exhibited to the medical board in October 2019 purported to have been issued at Mater Dei Hospital by consultant neurologist Ruth Galea, he said.

In view of these medical certificates, the medical board had declared Caruana to be eligible for benefits.

The man had received over €28,000 in benefits from October 2019 to date, he said.

From the witness stand, Inspector Tabone explained that the police had received an email from lawyer Jason Azzopardi reporting a suspicion that people might be using false medical certificates to claim benefits.

An investigation followed and one of the people arrested told the police that Grixti had issued them.

The certificates turned out to be forged, using Dr Ruth Galea’s medical registration number, he said. Galea had subsequently told the police that she did not know the defendant nor had she ever treated him.

Caruana had subsequently offered to repay the fraudulently obtained benefits in instalments of €50 per month, but the Department of Social Security had rejected the offer as it was too small an amount, said the inspector.

The Court decreed that there was sufficient prima facie evidence for the defendant to be indicted and sent the acts to the AG for a decision on how to proceed.

Lawyer Maria Karlsson appeared as defence counsel to Caruana.

The cases are thought to be two of many more involving Grixti, who is reported to have fraudulently provided false medical documents to people, often residing in strongholds of the Labour Party, enabling them to receive social benefits for severe medical conditions which they did not suffer from.

In recent weeks and months, the police had discreetly filed charges against a number of individuals who had benefited from this fraud.

Several individuals implicated in the fraud had told police investigators that they had been directed to speak to Grixti by various individuals, including a Labour minister, a now-deceased PL MP, ministers' aides, and even customer care officials from the Prime Minister's office.

 

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