Convicted gaming regulator escapes prison in Malta casino murder scandal

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In an intoxicating blend of high-stakes casino rivalries, power politics, and a journalist’s determined pursuit of truth, lies the turbulent tale of Heathcliffe Farrugia, Malta’s erstwhile chief gaming regulator. Now a convicted dissenter, Farrugia found himself entrapped in a destabilizing scandal for funneling classified government details to a dubious casino mogul suspected of masterminding the car-bomb assassination of steadfast journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia.

Farrugia’s treacherous relationship with casino magnate, Yorgen Fenech, who currently battles allegations of murder, was laid bare on Tuesday. It was the day when he was handed down a conditional discharge; it simply means that Farrugia has dodged the dread of walled confines of a prison, granted he keeps his hands clean for the next three years.

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In the nucleus of Farrugia’s conviction was his guilt of leaking sensitive intelligence to Fenech. Farrugia was caught feeding Fenech privileged knowledge about competing casino enterprises and confidential aspects of an ongoing anti-money laundering probe that targeted Fenech’s Portomaso Casino. Riding high as Malta’s top land-based casino operator, Fenech was the brains behind the mammoth Tumas Group, until the iron hands of law cornered him.

Shrouded in disapproval, Farrugia was the helm at Malta Gaming Authority, entrusted with monitoring the Mediterranean island nation’s blossoming gaming industry, a globally recognized hub for online gambling enthusiasts.

However, the ignominy of his suspect interactions, brought to light when sleuths screened Fenech’s phone as part of their murder investigation, precipitated his resignation in October 2022. With a desperate bid to absolve himself, Farrugia insisted that he was merely appeasing an irate Fenech, who was up in arms against the anti-money laundering investigation, claiming it was defaming the reputation of Tumas Gaming.

Farrugia, in his attempt to pacify Fenech, calmed him with the assurance that the review of Tumas was not a public matter, and that he would put his stakes on line to delay the report’s release. He further divulged that Casino Malta, run by a rival operator, was under the scanner too.

According to The Times of Malta, the previously hushed charges against Farrugia were presumably swept under the rug to protect the country’s vivacious gaming industry from being tainted by such damaging revelations.

As the political temperature soared, Caruana Galizia’s 2017 assassination culminates this high-octane narrative. Her relentless investigation into a suspect government contract, which Fenech’s company procured in 2014 for erecting a power station, is widely speculated to be her death’s instigation.

Fenech was intercepted while supposedly trying to escape Malta on his yacht in the dark early hours of November 20, 2019.

Alfred Degiorgio, George Degiorgio and Vince Muscat, alleged conspirators in the murder, received a combined sentence of 95 years in prison. The alleged go-between, Melvin Theuma, was pardoned in return of testifying against the accused and pointing fingers at Fenech as the ringleader.

Fenech’s deep-seated connections with the highest rungs of Malta’s government led to the downfall of then-Prime Minister Joseph Muscat’s administration. However, vehement in his denial, the casino mogul claims that three officials from Muscat’s government were the puppeteers behind the assassination.