Austrian Bookmaker, Dutch Billionaire Embroiled in Italian Mafia Gambling Probe That Leaves Malta Red-Faced

Posted on: October 2, 2019, 06:35h. 

Last updated on: October 2, 2019, 08:17h.

Italian authorities are expected to charge 51 people following a year-long investigation into organized crime and its links to the gambling industry, Times Malta reports.

Promo girls for SKS365, a prominent online sports book which prosecutors believe had Mafia ties and mingled legal and illegal betting operations.

Operation Galassia, led by the prosecutor’s offices from the Reggio Calabria, Catania and Bari regions, uncovered illegal gambling operations with combined annual revenues of around €4 billion ($4.38 billion), authorities said Friday.

Many are accused of running a “double track” system, which means they merged legal operations with illegal ones.

Some have links to the Maltese online betting sector, which will heap further embarrassment on Europe’s foremost online gambling hub and its reputation as a licensing authority.

Last year, Malta vowed to probe all Italian businesses based within its jurisdiction for evidence of Mafia connections after the fourth Maltese licensee in three years was found by Italian police to have connections to the Italian underworld.

SKS365 on Trial

Among those now expected to face trial in Italy are the former owners of Malta-registered Austrian sports betting company SKS365, who are accused of orchestrating the largest tax evasion claim issued against an online gambling company in Italy.

The company’s four founders, including its former head, Paolo Tavarelli, are alleged to have built the business through Mafia connections and money, and are accused of dodging €124 million ($135 million) in taxes.

SKS365 was no small-time operation. Its regulated activities were well-known in the industry, especially in Italy, where it boosted its brand presence through television commercials and Serie A soccer sponsorship.

Its Malta-regulated online casino brand, PlanetWin365, was the exclusive betting partner of SSC Napoli from 2017 to 2018.

Meanwhile, SKS365 allegedly had also had business dealings with the Martiradonna crime family, while running 2,500 illegal betting parlors up until 2015.

After the Italian government launched an amnesty program that year that gave black market venues the chance to be considered for licensing without having to pay back taxes, the company partially accepted the offer. But it continued to run around 1,000 unregulated shops in Italy, prosecutors claim.

Dutch Billionaire Entangled

SKS365 was fully acquired by Dutch hedge fund Ramphastos in late 2017 for $173 million. The fund is fronted by Dutch billionaire Marcel Boekhoorn, one of the richest men in Holland.

His company said that it had been unaware of SKS365’s alleged illegal practices prior to the acquisition, and the Italian prosecutor’s office initially said there were “no claims of responsibility” against the fund.

On Friday, it wasn’t so sure. Authorities now want to question Ramphastos about the subsequent acquisition of an Italian gaming software company, Talenta Labs, a deal that was allegedly recommended by former SKS365 Head Tavarelli.

Prosecutors allege that Tavarelli had a hidden financial interest in Talenta, which was not declared by Ramphastos, and that $2.7 million used to finance the deal may have been dirty money that came from Tavarelli himself.

In an official statement this week, Ramphastos said it “emphatically denies that any irregularities have occurred and wishes to emphasize that it operates within the legal framework and in accordance with strict standards and rules.”

“The company is confident that the investigation of the public prosecutor will prove as much,” it continued, adding that it was fully cooperating with the investigation.