Employment Commission postpones decision on unfair dismissal case filed by Norman Vella

Unfair dismissal judgment in Norman Vella case postponed after Prime Minister’s lawyer objects to incomplete composition of Employment Commission

Former broadcaster Norman Vella addressing reporters outside the law courts in Valletta after the Employment Commission postponed delivering judgment because the Prime Minister's lawyer objected to the absence of one of its members
Former broadcaster Norman Vella addressing reporters outside the law courts in Valletta after the Employment Commission postponed delivering judgment because the Prime Minister's lawyer objected to the absence of one of its members

The Employment Commission has postponed judgment on a complaint of unfair dismissal by former broadcaster Norman Vella because it was not fully composed today.

The decision will now be communicated on 15 May after lawyer Pawlu Lia, who was representing the prime minister in proceedings, objected to the judgment being given today since the commission was “irregularly composed”.

The case goes back to October 2013 when Vella had filed an unfair dismissal complaint before the Employment Commission against the prime minister of the time, Joseph Muscat, and the principal permanent secretary of the day, Mario Cutajar. Vella, an immigration officer, had been seconded to the national broadcaster but was stopped soon after the Labour Party came to government.

When the case was called today, Assistant State Advocate Fiorella Fenech Vella informed the Commission that Lia was stuck before another court.

After waiting for around 25 minutes, Fenech Vella was sent to see what had become of Lia. When she returned, she told the court that the courtroom he had been in was closed.

Employment Commission chairman Frank Testa informed the parties that the commission was not fully composed due to the long-standing absence of one of its members, which the parties had been informed about and consented to.

But Fenech Vella told Testa that Lia was objecting to the judgment being given today, because it was “irregularly composed.”

Lawyer Karol Aquilina, assisting Vella, replied that the absence had been communicated to Lia a long time ago and that Lia had given written consent to the continuation via email. There was no reason not to hand down judgment today, he argued.

Just as the judgment was about to be handed down, Lia walked into the courtroom, half an hour late. He denied ever having given consent to the sentence being handed down.

In view of Lia’s statement, the board adjourned the statement to 15 May so that its judgment would be above reproach.

“Now go to Valletta on Worker’s Day,” Vella told Lia. “This is another injustice. Does your boss know about this? Did you tell Robert Abela about this?”

Vella, who works and lives abroad, travelled to Malta to be present for the judgment. Outside the law courts, Vella described Lia's antics as a second case "vengence" perpetrated against him on the eve of Worker's Day.

The case was adjourned to 15 May.

The case

Vella was employed as a border control officer at Malta International Airport but had been granted five years’ unpaid leave to work in broadcasting, where he had hosted discussion programs on PBS, Malta’s national broadcaster.

Between 2006 and 2012, Vella had been employed by Where’s Everybody as a producer on popular shows Xarabank and Bijografiji, before moving to TVM in 2012, where he hosted the daily current affairs program TVHemm.

After Labour’s victory in the 2013 general election, Vella was redeployed to the airport.

He claims the redeployment was an act of political discrimination, due to his support of the Nationalist Party. Vella had later gone on to unsuccessfully contest the European elections on the PN ticket.

The Commission had also heard TV presenter Peppi Azzopardi and former Head of government communications Kurt Farrugia confirm they had been present during an incident recounted during Vella’s testimony where, before coming to power in 2013, disgraced former prime minister Joseph Muscat had told him that “for every blow that we feel you (plural) are landing on the Labour Party, I will give you two, with all my strength, below the belt, where it hurts.”

On 27 October, 2013, just days after proceedings before the Employment Commission had started, police officers had arrested Vella while he was on duty at the airport. The reason for his arrest, subsequently found to be spurious by Magistrate Marse-Ann Farrugia, was an allegation that he had taken a photo of Kurt Farrugia and Labour Party President Ramona Attard before they caught a flight at the airport and sent it to Daphne Caruana Galizia. The existence of the photograph was never proven and the court ruled that there had been no grounds for reasonable suspicion that Vella had committed a crime.

During the course of the proceedings before the Employment Commission, former PBS CEO John Bundy had testified that Silvio Scerri, the Chief of Staff at the Home Affairs Ministry had “personally intervened” to ensure that Vella was removed from PBS and sent back to his airport job.

Scerri had denied the allegations and filed libel proceedings against Bundy, which were dismissed by the presiding magistrate, who ruled that Bundy’s testimony was factual and had been corroborated by documentary evidence. Bundy had been represented in those proceedings by lawyer Robert Abela, now prime minister.

In July 2013, the Office of the Prime Minister had declared that Vella’s removal from PBS was because TVHemm was going to be discontinued that summer. However, during the proceedings before the Employment Commission, the defendants had exhibited a letter explaining that Vella had been redeployed because he was “essential” to the immigration section at the airport. Kurt Farrugia told the Commission that the initial explanation had been made in error.

The prime minister and principal permanent secretary did not bring forward any witnesses to support their defence.

What is the Employment Commission?

The Employment Commission is a constitutionally established body, set up to ensure that “in respect of employment, no distinction, exclusion or preference that is not justifiable in a democratic society is made or given in favour or against any person by reason of his political opinion.”

It has five members: two nominated by the Prime Minister, two by the Leader of the Opposition and a Chairperson nominated by the Prime Minister following consultation with the Leader of the Opposition.

The Commission is currently composed of lawyers Noel Camilleri, Rodianne Sciberras, Roberta Leprè Camilleri and Alessia Zammit McKeon, with lawyer Frank B. Testa as Chairman.