Sparks fly as government MPs question Beppe Fenech Adami’s legitimacy to chair PAC

Opposition MPs who featured in email cache soliciting jobs for constituents at Wasteserv between 2009 and 2013 refuse to step aside from parliamentary committee looking into alleged abusive recruitment at the same agency before the last election

Tensions ran high at Tuesday's PAC meeting
Tensions ran high at Tuesday's PAC meeting

Tensions ran high during Tuesday’s Public Accounts Committee meeting after government MPs questioned the legitimacy of Opposition members Beppe Fenech Adami, Claudio Grech and Jason Azzopardi.

The parliamentary committee is currently discussing a sudden increase in workers at Wasteserv before the last election.

However, Tuesday’s meeting was overshadowed by MaltaToday’s publication of a cache of emails dating back to the last Nationalist legislature, showing the three MPs interfering in recruitment at the same agency.

The government is insisting that the three MPs could not possibly “judge something which they had done themselves”.

“The Opposition is complaining that something happened before the 2017 election, when the Opposition itself did it before the 2013 election,” Labour MP Robert Abela said, adding that he was “disappointed” this had not been flagged by Beppe Fenech Adami.

The former PN deputy leader said that the terms of reference for the PAC’s investigation had been extended to 2010 on the government’s request.

Fenech Adami alleges Wasteserv had a hand in leaking email cache

Fenech Adami also remarked that the government found cooperation on the part of Wasteserv to obtain the emails in question, while complaining that despite requesting information from the agency, the committee had not yet been provided with it.

Fenech Adami said the committee had no problem discussing Wasteserv recruitment going back to 2010 and accused the government MPs of trying to sabotage the probe.

“This will not stop the truth emerging about what happened before the last election, with people close to the Labour Party being employed without there being need for them,” Fenech Adami said.

He insisted that the committee would examine what it had been requested to, and the government’s side would have every opportunity to ask whatever it wanted.

“If you want to speak about conflicts of interest, I can list all the conflicts of interest Robert Abela has,” Fenech Adami rebutted to accusations by Opposition MPs that he had a conflict.

Abela stressed that the government had no intention of stopping the hearing, as Fenech Adami had suggested, but rather would be asking the Opposition MPs to testify and explain each email.

Labour MP Alex Muscat asked Fenech Adami whether he was comfortable chairing the PAC when it would be investigating him, to which Fenech Adami replied that the committee would not be investigating him, but rather the engagement of individuals with WasteServ.

“When the time comes, you can call your own witnesses,” Fenech Adami said.

Adrian Delia's blessing

Muscat also questioned whether Fenech Adami had the blessing of PN leader Adrian Delia. “I have been appointed by the Opposition led by Adrian Delia and I have not been told that he has a problem with me,” Fenech Adami rebutted.

Fenech Adami insisted he would not be taking any lessons from MPs of a government led by Joseph Muscat, who he said had ended up in a state where he was waiting to leave office.

“The irony is that he would end up leaving before Tourism Minister Konrad Mizzi and OPM chief of staff Keith Schembri,” Fenech Adami said, referring to the two people named in the Panama Papers.

The MPs haggled in the presence of Wasteserv CEO Tonio Montebello, who was summoned to testify.

When it was Montebello’s turn to start answering, the CEO asked Fenech Adami to clarify whether he was insinuating that he was the one who provided the emails to MaltaToday.

Abela accused Fenech Adami of attempting to intimidate the witness, an accusation Fenech Adami refuted. “I made no allegation about Mr Montebello. It is justified, a question might come up about who is responsible for documentation at Wasteserv,” Fenech Adami said.

Reacting to Prime Minister Joseph Muscat’s call for him to resign the chairmanship of PAC, Fenech Adami said it was surreal for such a request to be made when Konrad Mizzi and Keith Schembri had kept their post.

He said it was unbelievable that he was being asked to step down over emails he sent recommending a qualified person for a post, which she ended up never being approached for.

PN MP Jason Azzopardi said that there were also emails from Labour Party MPs and candidates to then minister George Pullicino that had not been passed on to MaltaToday, in which recommendations were also made regarding recruitment at Wasteserv.

“Those emails were planned to be leaked, they were ready with punch holes and were planned to be leaked before this hearing,” Azzopardi said.

He added there was nothing wrong with MPs recommending individuals for employment.

The government MPs on the PAC are Robert Abela, Rosianne Cutajar, Clayton Bartolo and Alex Muscat, while the Opposition MPs are Beppe Fenech Adami, Claudio Grech, Kristy Debono and Jason Azzopardi.

'Malta's reality is what it is' 

Abela then asked Montebello what role Marthese Portelli had at Wasteserv prior to the 2013 election, and what role Vincent Magri had. Montebello replied that they were director and CEO respectively.

Abela noted that in one email from 2009 Portelli had told Magri that she was facing pressure from OPM to engage three particular individuals.

Asked whether he had faced similar pressures under the last Labour administration, Montebello said the government had created a customer care system so it “could be close to the people”.

He said the reality in Malta was that there were always cases where people and employees had requests or complaints. “Some go to the union, some go to customer care and some go directly to the minister.”

“I am informed that up until yesterday there was a request by a Gozitan MP,” said Montebello, who, when asked, said he had not been contacted by his minister regarding the recruitment of any individuals.

Moreover, he said that whenever he was contacted regarding employment, he referred requests to the Wasteserv’s HR department, adding that all recruitment was handled by JF Services Ltd.

Montebello did say he had been asked by a minister to appoint a particular Chief Financial Officer upon being appointed CEO but had refused to do so.

As the government continued its line of questioning Fenech Adami again remarked that it was surreal that the Opposition was being accused of impropriety when it had recruited 10 individuals before the 2013 election, when the original request for the PAC to investigate was the result of the engagement of 270 individuals over a period of two weeks before the 2017 election.

Montebello however insisted that since the last Nationalist legislature, the number of plants operated by Wasteserv had tripled. Moreover, he also pointed out that there was a high turnover at the agency for a number of reasons, including the fact that people underestimated how difficult work at the company was, with many “thinking it was just another government department”.

Referring to yet another email between the then minister’s chief of staff and Wasteserv’s HR manager, Montebello stressed that had this happened today, the HR manager would immediately be fired.

At the start of the sitting, Montebello provided the committee with a number of requested documents, including budget requests to the ministry of finance and a ‘manpower plan’ for the agency.

Given that Montebello had been asked to testify on the Opposition’s request, and since there were many documents which needed to be photocopied and analysed, it was decided that the sitting would be suspended until both sides had the opportunity to review the documents presented.

More in National

Get access to the real stories first with the digital edition