Two police officers have denied charges relating to alleged overtime fraud when they were arraigned in court by summons.
Sergeant Alexander Schembri, 56, from Xgħajra and constable Joseph Debrincat, 64, from Santa Venera appeared in the dock before magistrate Nadine Lia on Thursday.
Both officers pleaded not guilty to charges of fraud of not more than €5,000 and of committing an offence which they were duty bound to prevent.
Schembri, who is also president of the Malta Police Union, was further charged with misuse of government funds, complicity in fraud, knowingly making a false declaration to a public authority and creating or using a false record document.
The prosecution requested that the officers be placed under general interdiction.
Inspector Christian Abela, from the police’s Criminal Investigation Department, said the investigation was triggered by an anonymous letter sent in 2019 to the police CEO at the time Angelo Gafà, who today is Commissioner of Police.
Abela identified 9 officers whose duties overlapped their rostered hours. With six officers, apparent overlaps were caused by invoicing mistakes and not malice. A seventh officer was also not found to have acted maliciously. “But in the case of Schembri and Debrincat it appeared that they were trying to receive extra payment for duties they were allocated.”
No less than 23 officers had been paid over €10,000 or more that year for extra duties, he said, adding however, that in the majority of cases criminal intent could not be proven. “It was very different to notice – when you see the amounts that they were paid in extra revenue, when spread over 13 salaries, you could not pinpoint them.”
“But in Debrincat’s case, his shift patterns were changed and he was working extra duties during his normal working hours. When you divide Debrincat’s overlapping payment over 13 salaries, he was earning around €120 extra every month – €2,315 in 2019 for overlapping payments.”
Schembri was in charge of allocating extra duties and found to have earned thousands for extra duties. Under interrogation, Schembri had tried to explain the overlapping duties, he said, “but as the interrogation went on, his explanations contradicted each other.”
The internal investigation focused on the Valletta police station, where both officers had been stationed at the time. The two officers recevied €2,000 in payments for overlapping duties, whereas the other officers had received much lower amounts in overtime, in some cases as low as €20 per monthly salary, the inspector said.
Lawyer Joe Giglio cross-examined the inspector, asking whether there were any Standard Operating Procedures (known as SOPs) in place to regulate duties, extra duties and tours of duties. “I don’t believe there were any in place at the time,” replied the witness. “The police don’t have a choice between extra duties and revenue duties,” suggested the lawyer, “so the request for extra duty must be worked out by someone in the corp.”
Besides their shift and overtime hours, police officers can also be assigned extra duties during the officer’s time off, such as security at weddings and so on, and “revenue duties” during officer’s working hours, such as guarding cash vans as they unloaded at banks. Extra duties are paid to the officer, while revenue duties are paid to the corps. The minimum length for requests for extra duties are three hours: “So if a citizen requests police for a job and it only takes 15 minutes, the officers will still be paid for three hours,” observed the lawyer.
Giglio then asked whether the inspector’s investigation had found that Sgt. Schembri had sent an email to the commissioner of police at the time, Lawrence Cutajar, to request clarification on this very issue. After some to and fro, the witness confirmed that he was not aware of the alleged email.
The inspector confirmed he was aware that the police force was understaffed. “This issue was not going to affect the numbers problem,” the inspector said, “because if you have duties in the morning and send the officer on an extra duty, extra payment or not, this will not affect the number of available officers.”
“If you are in a district with a lot of duties, it is a headache to roster, yes. But if you take a police officer from the police station, the number is less. The crime is about the payment.”
But when Giglio pointed out that officers were not obliged to accept the extra duty, the witness agreed. “So the numbers problem exists, doesn’t it?” said the lawyer.
Schembri was the president of the Malta Police Union, Giglio pointed out. “So you arraigned the president of the union most critical of [Commissioner Angelo] Gafà, but not others who were paid more?”
The inspector replied that Schembri’s union involvement “did not affect me at all,” insisting that the difference in the amounts that emerged in Debrincat’s case “was not just €500 over 13 monthly salaries.”
There were other officers with similar or greater discrepancies in their overtime payments who were not arraigned, suggested the lawyer. “You cannot compare them with Schembri but only with Debrincat,” replied the inspector.
At the end of the sitting, the court decreed that it had seen sufficient prima facie evidence at this stage for the Attorney General to issue a bill of indictment.
The case continues in April.
Superintendent James Grech, Inspector Christian Abela prosecuted on behalf of the Commissioner of Police, while prosecutors Etienne Savona and Maria Schembri appeared on behalf of the Office of the Attorney General. David Bonello appearedon behalf of Schembri.