Whistleblowers say they were pressured to select favoured MCAST teachers

Ministry mum over police action on former MCAST executive still out on ‘forced leave’ despite 2018 inquiry board’s report of perjury and favouritism

A top MCAST executive whose allegations of corruption were disproved by a ministerial inquiry, was reported to the police on grounds of perjury. Yet no action has been taken against former HR manager Josephine Abdilla, who is believed to still be receiving a full wage despite while suspended – four full years after the inquiry was concluded.

The ministerial inquiry was launched in 2018 after Abdilla was placed on forced leave following complaints by her co-workers.

A figure reviled by staff and teachers for her abrasive and suborning behaviour, Abdilla alleged corruption and bribery at the heart of MCAST’s operations in an angry email to the education ministry.

But when the ministry responded with an official inquiry into the serious claims, all allegations were disproved. Instead, the tables were turned against her: whistleblowers came forward saying they had been pressured by Abdilla in selecting favoured candidates for MCAST teaching jobs. She has denied the accusation in a lengthy right of reply to MaltaToday, despite the clear findings of the inquiry.

Yet the inquiry report remains unpublished to this day.

The inquiry board forwarded their report to the police for investigation in 2018. But the education ministry – namely spokesperson Etienne St John, permanent secretary Frank Fabri and MCAST principal James Calleja – have since February 2021 refused to answer repeated requests by MaltaToday to explain why Abdilla remains suspended on full pay, despite the findings of the inquiry.

This week, contacted by phone, Prof. Calleja confirmed Abdilla had not been reinstated after the inquiry’s report was finalised. But he refused to confirm that she remains suspended on full pay, four years since the finalisation of the inquiry report.

MaltaToday is informed that in February 2019, the police investigation had been passed on to the Attorney General, with no progress registered since then.

Top brass ignored reports against Abdilla

Not only was Abdilla revealed to have been a much reviled executive at MCAST due to her bullying of subordinates and confrontation with other staff and lecturers, but college top brass failed to take decisive action against her for years.

In this environment of terror, only a small group of whistleblowers had the courage to report Abdilla, for having repeatedly tried to influence them when selecting candidates for MCAST teaching jobs.

It was on the back of this complaint that Abdilla was placed on forced leave. But in a bid to kick back against the allegations, Abdilla fired off an email to the education ministry claiming to “know about things that could cause some discomfort”.

The threat was interpreted as blackmail, and the ministry launched an inquiry. Yet no factual evidence could be brought by Abdilla to corroborate what she claimed had been corruption and bribery inside MCAST. For example, at one point she alleged that a former chairman of MCAST’s board of governors, Silvio de Bono, was pocketing a bribe from new teachers selected for a job. Abdilla retracted the allegation, which turned out to be a lie.

Indeed, Abdilla was found to have perjured herself before the board of inquiry, when faced with reports from three whistleblowers that she pressured the into favouring particular candidates for teaching jobs.

Abdilla would claim with these members of the MCAST interviewing panel that she had been instructed by top brass such as the ministry or Silvio de Bono, to pick the candidates of her choosing. In one case she complained that an unqualified candidate for a part-time lecturing post was not selected, “was required to be selected at all costs”.

The whistleblowers said that while Abdilla’s favouritism did not seem to be linked to political affinity – although she boasted of being close to the Labour administration (she had been hand-picked by the Labour administration to form part of a ministerial inquiry into Corradino Correctional Facility) – she exerted great pressure on interviewing board members, even forcing them to change the scores they gave to candidates during job interviews.

In the case of a particular candidate for an English lecturing post, Abdilla ordered one of the members that the candidate had to “come first”, and that the rest of the interviewing board had to be told that the candidate came “strongly recommended”.

Abdilla even instigated them not to grade positively a female candidate who was pregnant, because the college would be forced to pay for her pregnancy leave.

It was only when one of the interviewing board members refused to be cowed by Abdilla, that a report was filed to both deputy principal Vincent Maione and principal James Calleja. The whistleblower accused Abdilla of using her alleged influence with the education ministry to pressure interview panel member to select her favoured job candidates.

Abdilla attempted to placate the whistleblower, by pleading as justification for favouring one certain candidate that their father “could have helped MCAST a lot”. Unperturbed, the whistleblower filed a new complaint with MCAST’s grievance officer, Anthony Saliba, so that it would reach Frederick Schembri, the then-chairman of the MCAST board of governors (who had replaced De Bono).

The whistleblowers were praised by the board of inquiry for coming forward with such detail on what they said was “wrong, illegal and immoral”. They said Abdilla’s denials and the possibility that she had withheld information during the inquiry, had to be reported to the police.

In comment to MaltaToday, former MCAST chairman Frederick Schembri said he was unable to say what action had been taken by the college principal at the time. “As chairman of the board of governors, we communicated the recommendations of the inquiry board, to the MCAST principal. I cannot say whether they were eventually implemented, nor what the outcome of the police investigation was.”