The economic crimes unit of the Malta police force is investigating new claims about a system of illegal commissions at Identity Malta in relation to the government’s controversial cash for passports scheme, The Shift has learned.
According to the claims flagged to the police and other public individuals, between 2015 and 2018 senior officials at Identity Malta were passing internal details about wealthy foreigners who had applied to acquire a Maltese passport to a particular real estate agency.
Through this information, estate agents were put in contact with the prospective passport buyers to sell or lease to them high-value properties all over the island.
In exchange, the same senior officials at Identity Malta were allegedly being paid tens of thousands of euros in commissions whenever such a sale or lease agreement was signed. To avoid drawing attention to the movement of these funds, it seems the officials involved re-invested these commissions in other properties and bonds, thus avoiding the banking system.
A spokesman for the police confirmed that these claims have been received and are being investigated thoroughly. It is not yet known if the police have made any progress on the leads, which include details of all the officials involved and the estate agents included in the scheme.
According to the cash-for-passports programme, introduced by Labour in 2013, non-EU citizens were given the opportunity to acquire a Maltese passport against payment. As part of the rules, those applying for such a scheme, mostly Chinese, Russian, and Saudi millionaires, had to show real connection to Malta, either by buying property of over €350,000 or by signing a lease contract of over €16,000 a year.
Police sources told The Shift that the allegations concern a particular three-year period, between 2015 and 2018, when Identity Malta senior officials allegedly doubled as brokers (sensara) in the lucrative property deals.
“Obviously by having first-hand information of those net-worth individuals looking around for high-end property in Malta made them very ‘popular’ with estate agents,” the police source said. “If this is proved to be the case, as we are still investigating, Identity Malta officials would have acted illegally and will have to face the consequences.”
At the time, the government agency was led by Executive Chairman Joe Vella Bonnici, an unsuccessful Labour candidate who had been put in charge of the cash-for-passports scheme, residence and work permits by disgraced former prime minister Joseph Muscat.
Since its inception in 2013, Identity Malta had been plagued by claims of alleged corruption and sleaze in relation to the selling of passports as well as the issuing of visas and work permits.
In 2015 the police uncovered a racket in which thousands of visas and residence permits were issued fraudulently, mainly to Libyans and Russians. At the time, several employees of Identity Malta were arrested in a wide-ranging investigation and a former Labour candidate and accountant, Joe Sammut, was arraigned and is still facing criminal charges.
In 2018, Identity Malta was completely rebranded and split into three different agencies while Vella Bonnici was silently moved out of office and replaced by Labour candidate Ian Castaldi Paris. The latter was subsequently not reappointed after he was involved in tax investigations over his alleged undeclared wealth.