Woman charged with defrauding 'at least' 27 people out of €300,000 in government housing swindle

The woman is accused of taking around €300,000 from at least 27 people in exchange for cut-price government housing properties

A self-employed cleaner has been remanded in custody after being accused of taking a total of around €300,000 from at least 27 people in exchange for cut-price government housing properties which never materialised.

Police inspectors Shawn Friggieri and Ritienne Gauci arraigned 42 year-old Sarah Ann Gatt from Santa Venera before magistrate Josette Demicoli this afternoon.

Gatt, who told the court she worked as a cleaner, pleaded not guilty to charges which include fraud, misappropriation, forgery of public and private documents, breaching the conditions of a suspended sentence and recidivism. 

The charges referred to crimes which started in 2018 and continued until this month.

Inspector Friggieri, who told the court that he had been assigned to the case just over a month ago, explained how the Housing Department had informed the police after receiving a number of similar complaints regarding property which was supposed to have been built but had not materialised.

He said the victims had told the police that they had been approached by two persons with an offer to sell them government housing stock at a reduced price. “We’re talking about a block of five flats for €200,000.”

A number of messages, which the inspector said purported to come from the Housing Authority, were sent to the victims. The police traced the messages to one of the accused’s numbers. 

The persons would collect payments, ostensibly to secure properties from the Housing Authority, but would then disappear with the money. 

During a search of Gauci’s residence, the police had discovered several blank official letterheads and government envelopes, he said.

The investigation of the claims, originally dealt with four victims, but as the investigation progressed, the number soon ballooned to 24, exceeding €260,000 in total value, the court was told.

Police had identified three women as suspects, one of them being the accused. The other two persons were understood to still be operating, he said.

In view of the not guilty plea, lawyer Franco Debono requested bail for the accused. This was objected to by the prosecution due to fears of the accused  tampering with evidence. “We have a plethora of victims defrauded by this woman who need to testify. There is a risk that she may approach them,” said prosecutor Andrea Zammit from the Office of the Attorney General. There was also a risk to the police investigation into third parties, he added.

The woman had been convicted of similar crimes of fraud in the past, Zammit said and had breached the terms of a suspended sentence, in addition to being a recidivist. 

Debono reminded the court that the accused was presumed innocent at this stage. “I understand that the prosecution has preserved the evidence by now…If we are saying that the crimes date back to 2018, there were plenty of opportunities for the accused to tamper with evidence or approach witnesses. The fear did not start today.”

Zammit told the court it was unjust of the defence to posit this argument: “While it was true that the police had the opportunity to interview several victims, the police were still discovering new victims.”

There had not been a magisterial inquiry in this case and therefore that there was a risk that the accused could attempt to influence witnesses, he added.

“There was no inquiry,” repeated Debono. “This is the crux of everything…the law already specifies a lot. When an inquiry is held, the witnesses heard there are not even supposed to testify in the compilation of evidence. I am sick and tired of hearing ill-informed comments about this,” he said.

“So before we start uselessly trying to change the compilation of evidence, do we already know that there already are strict timeframes? Compilations of evidence are supposed to be wrapped up in a period of one month.”

“Our client should not be prejudiced by the fact that no inquiry was held,” he said, ruing that the evidence had not been properly preserved through no fault of the accused.

The court, however, refused bail and ordered the woman be remanded in custody in view of the risk of her attempting to influence or suborn witnesses, urging the prosecution to summon its witnesses without delay. A request for a freezing order was also upheld.

Debono told the court that he had been insisting for the past ten years  that witnesses should be summoned in the first sitting in all cases, and not just when the defendant is a tourist who is due to leave the islands.

The practice of assigning compilations of evidence to other magistrates after arraignment is a measure intended to avoid what is known as “forum shopping”, by choosing when to arraign so as to have the case heard by a particular magistrate on duty that day, as opposed to others. “But we have ended up with a lot of people in custody until their compilation starts,” Debono explained to the MaltaToday after the sitting was over.