Fuel trader and alleged money launderer Gordon Debono is making regular use of his 66-foot yacht despite a court-ordered asset freeze limiting him and his wife to an expenditure of up to €14,000 per year.
The yacht, Bagatelle II, has made a number of regular trips to and from Marsaskala Bay over the last few months.
According to estimates, its diesel 2,000Kw (2,600 HP) engines (as listed in the ship registry) cost around €350/hour to run at half-power, meaning just 40 hours of its use would exhaust the maximum annual living expenditure for the couple, laid down by the court – €14,000 per year.
This raises questions about how Debono is financing his use of the yacht and the effectiveness of the asset freeze.
Charges relating to suspicions of money laundering were filed against Debono in November 2020. A request to unfreeze the assets of Debono, his wife, and 18 of their companies was refused by the Maltese Civil Court (Constitutional Jurisdiction) in December 2022.
The 2020 charges followed Debono’s arrest in Italy in 2017 on suspicion of forming part of a fuel smuggling ring with Darren Debono (no relation) and Fahmi Bin Khalifa.
The three allegedly had ties to the Italian mafia and Libyan militias “in an operation that reportedly earned the group over €30 million,” according to a sanction notice issued by the United States Treasury Department the following year.
Luxury despite a freeze
Lawyers consulted by The Shift said that while “use of the boat would not breach a freezing order, normally such orders are combined with seizure or confiscation orders which take the asset away” rather than just blocking its sale or transfer.
The issue is how the multiple trips around the island are financed, considering the limits placed on Debono and his wife.
The Bagatelle II was built by Cantieri di Pisa in 1990. It was previously registered in Italy but was transferred to the local Valletta register in 2017, listing the company Seabrass Ltd as its owner.
Seabrass Ltd was one of the companies named in the court’s freezing order and listed his wife, Yvette, as its director and KB Investments Ltd, which lists Gordon Debono as its sole shareholder.
Debono regularly uses his yacht, and the boat’s public tracking number shows that he made frequent trips to Gozo, Sliema, The Grand Harbour and Ħofriet Bay, Marsaskala, over the past two months.
The Shift sent questions to Debono’s lawyer, Roberto Montalto, asking how Debono could finance his luxury yacht under an asset freeze limiting him to just €14,000 per year.
Montalto said, “Debono uses his yacht as per permission granted and in line with all relative court decrees, abiding with all restrictions and conditions imposed by said court orders”.
He claimed the yacht’s “cost of running is negligible when used only in local waters (as per court-imposed restriction), cruising at low speeds”.
What led to the asset freeze
In October 2017, Gordon and Darren Debono were arrested in Catania for the alleged fuel smuggling ring, which included Libyan ‘smuggling king’ Fahmi Bin Khalifa.
The ring’s operation, which reportedly involved 30 trips between Libya and Italy transporting more than 80 million kilogrammes of oil, was said to be worth €30 million. Ships owned by the Debonos allegedly carried out the transportation.
The following year, the US Treasury Department issued a sanctions notice, including Darren and Gordon Debono. The notice aimed to combat oil smuggling,” which undermines Libya’s sovereignty, fuels the black market and contributes to further instability in the region while robbing the population of resources that are rightly theirs.”
It expressly prohibited American nationals from doing business with those sanctioned and froze any related assets from being used in the US.
Such freezes include American banks networked internationally, effectively leading to a total and international freeze of Debono’s assets, according to legal sources.
In 2019, The Shift revealed how the Maltese courts may have aided Debono in evading sanctions.
Following a Cypriot court judgement, Judge Francesco Depasquale had sanctioned the release of €1.5 million from one of Debono’s companies to a Dubai company to which it ‘owed’ money.
The issue arose once it was discovered that the Dubai company was owned by none other than Debono’s wife, Yvette, effectively allowing for the movement of frozen assets.
The Malta Financial Services Authority (MFSA) later stopped a second €1.3 million transfer.
A year after the “devious” transfer scheme and three years after Debono was arrested in Italy, the Maltese courts finally issued money laundering charges against the suspected oil smuggler, his wife and their companies, freezing their assets as part of the proceedings.
Under the Prevention of Money Laundering Act, anyone with an asset freeze, movable and immovable, including those held by third parties, is granted an annual allowance of €13,976.24.
Gordon Debono and his wife Yvette attempted to increase this limit with their lawyers arguing that this did not guarantee a “decent living“.
In December last year, Debono asked for the proceedings to be dropped as they breached his constitutional rights to personal freedom. The court rejected the request for an interim measure until their charges were decided, upholding the asset freeze.