The step-daughter of Darren Debono, who faces charges of money laundering in Malta over an oil smuggling operation, has been charged with money laundering.
Florinda (Floren Sultana), 29, and a former high-ranking BNF Bank official, Albert Buttigieg (who is not the St. Julian’s mayor), were accused of fronting companies which manage two seafood restaurants, to launder money linked to oil smuggling.
They pleaded not guilty to numerous charges filed against them.
Sultana was once the main actress for a 2013 Labour electoral ad, in which she portrayed a stereotypical middle-class Nationalist voter announcing she was ‘switching’ to Labour.
Both are being prosecuted in their personal capacity, while Sultana also stands charged as former director of Nesvan Company Ltd and MSI Catering, and Buttigieg as director of Luzzu Catering, the operators of Porticello in Valletta and Capo Mulini in Marsaxlokk, respectively.
Search and arrest warrants were issued for Sultana and Buttigieg late last year during the extensive police anti-smuggling operation which resulted in the arrests of former footballers Darren Debono and Jeffrey Chetcuti, as well as auditor Chris Baldacchino over similar money laundering charges.
Investigators working on taking apart an organized crime group that allegedly ran a €30 million fuel smuggling racket, had linked these restaurant-owning companies to Darren Debono who was arrested in December and released on bail last week.
All companies had the same Swieqi-based address and shared a host of similar features including a pattern of banking transactions, money trails and day-to-day operations, as well as a common warranted auditor.
When testifying at the start of criminal proceedings against Sultana and Buttigieg, inspector James Turner gave details about investigations into the Valletta and Marsaxlokk restaurants, both specializing in seafood.
The restaurants adopted the same payment method and each had its own ePOS system. The daily cash flow was not deposited, thus avoiding questions by banks, the inspector told the court.
Sultana is the daughter of Debono’s partner, while Buttigieg provided corporate banking services to the former footballer at Banif Bank, affording internal assistance that enabling the client to bypass the ant-money laundering system and avoid detection of financial layering.
Sultana used his right to silence when she was arrested at home in Mosta.
A search of her home yielded some €52,000 in cash, various branded items including Gucci and Armani and ten watches, including a Rolex, large glass jars containing banknotes and coins as well as documents linked to sales at Porticello, Capo Mulini, Silver Horse and Onda Blu restaurants.
The woman was later questioned and asked to explain possession of those items as well as an Audi A1 the acquisition of which could not be linked to any bank transaction.
Inspector Danilo Francalanza, from the anti-money laundering squad, testified about his role in the search at Sultana’s home.
Another officer from the unit, PS Francesco Farrugia, described the search at Albert Buttigieg’s Swieqi residence in December, during which a number of documents and electronic devices were seized. The search party had then moved on to Marsaxlokk, searching Capo Mulini and two interconnected garages behind the restaurant and seizing other documents and devices. During his interrogation, Buttigieg was unable to explain how the business, claimed to be struggling, had still managed to register earnings of €1 million.
Questions were also asked about refurbishment works at the restaurant and the involvement of Spiridione, known as Daimer, Goodlip who allegedly took instructions from Debono. Goodlip is brother to Debono’s partner Odette Goodlip.
Marsaxlokk restaurant Capo Mulini’s chef patron at one time was the fiancé to Debono’s niece. Albert Buttigieg acted as director of Luzzu Catering, the operator of the Capo Mulini restaurant.
Onda Blu restaurant in Pietà, according to Facebook photos, was staffed by former Porticello head waiters, as well as Sultana’s fiancé.
Silver Horse ‘by Sonni’, a popular bar on Strait Street, carries the nickname ‘Sonni’ of Valletta FC’s vice-president Alexander Fenech. But in June 2020, the bar entered into a ‘platinum’ sponsorship agreement for Valletta FC: the promotional photo included Fenech alongside Darren Debono and Jeffrey Chetcuti – who faces money laundering charges together with Debono – Valletta FC president Victor Sciriha and Valletta property entrepreneur Adrian Imbroll.
In a statement sent to the media, Valletta FC said: “Valletta FC and it’s officials refute any inference of their involvement in the operations of ‘Silver Horse by Sonni’ and affirm without reservations that they neither hold, nor have they ever held, any commercial interest in the operations of ‘Silver Horse by Sonni’. Valletta FC and it’s officials disassociate themselves completely from the actions being alleged in such articles.”
Porticello restaurant was renamed after its forebear Scoglitti was blacklisted by the US Treasury Department. The Office of Foreign Asset Control (OFAC) later updated its sanctions list to reflect a change in the name of the blacklisted Maltese restaurant, which belonged to former national footballer and alleged fuel smuggler Darren Debono, and was blacklisted by the US back in February.
Magistrate Donatella Frendo Dimech confirmed a freezing order on all assets of the accused whilst also confirming an earlier order by the Criminal Court allowing the targeted restaurants to continue to operate under supervision while the freezing order remains in place.
The court also appointed an IT expert to analyse the devices for information relevant to the charges. Lawyers Stefano Filletti and Martina Cuschieri are defence counsel. Inspectors Joseph Xerri, James Turner and Omar Caruana are prosecuting, assisted by AG lawyers Antoine Agius Bonnici and Cinzia Azzopardi Alamango.