A government agency that falls directly under Principal Permanent Secretary Mario Cutajar’s responsibility was forced to change its decision on a tender after its actions were found to be irregular and abusive by the Public Contracts Review Board (PCRB).
During the hearing of procedures against Servizz.Gov – an extension of an already existing information channel on public services – the board heard conflicting evidence on the role played by the Head of the Civil Service in the ‘abusive’ decision, with various officials contradicting themselves about his role.
The PCRB’s decision followed an appeal filed by law firm Iuris Malta Advocates over a tender issued by Servizz.Gov for a Data Protection Officer’s services.
After submitting the cheapest bid for the public tender, the law firm was informed last October that it had won. Yet seven days later the agency changed its decision, stating that it was cancelling the tender as it had decided to employ internal staff for this service.
This sudden change was deemed irregular, abusive, discriminatory and unacceptable by the law firm which challenged it through the PCRB. Iuris Malta already had several other tenders cancelled by the government for unknown reasons, the law firm told the PCRB.
During the hearing, the chairperson of the Evaluation Committee, Melissa Vella Buhagiar, a former Labour TV reporter employed by Mario Cutajar as his communications aide soon after the 2013 elections, could not explain what led to the tender’s sudden cancellation.
She said it was the Head of the agency, Massimo Vella, who informed her that Cutajar wanted a change to cover the data protection role internally. Admitting that she had failed to sign the cancellation due to “a failure of communications”, Buhagiar could not recall any dates or discussions related to the tender’s cancellation.
On his part, Agency Head Massimo Vella, appointed only last August, said the decision to cancel the tender was his and insisted that he did not discuss the issue with Cutajar. He said that before making the decision, he had consulted the agency’s lawyer, Marco Woods.
Yet even Vella’s version was immediately put in doubt as Woods denied that he was consulted before the decision was taken.
The law firm deemed the contradictory statements on Cutajar’s role and how the tender was cancelled were “not credible”.
The PCRB ruled that the decision by the OPM agency was irregular and breached public procurement rules. Ordering the revocation of the decision to cancel the tender, the board said that Vella Buhagiar had acted illegally.
Mario Cutajar, a former deputy secretary general of the General Workers Union, was catapulted to Head of the Civil Service’s role soon after Labour was returned to power in 2013. His first decision was to force the resignation of all the top civil servants (permanent secretaries) working under the previous administration.
Although he is close to disgraced former Prime Minister Joseph Muscat and his Chief of Staff Keith Schembri, current Prime Minister Robert Abela retained him as Head of the civil service as well as his role as Cabinet secretary.
In 2019 it was revealed that apart from serving as Head of the Public Service, Cutajar was also appointed executive director at Heritage Malta receiving an extra remuneration of €18,000 a year. Cutajar used to work at Heritage Malta before Labour was elected to govern.
Last year, Cutajar resisted calls for his resignation after his brother, Aldo, was arraigned in court accused of money laundering while acting as Malta’s Consul in Shanghai, China.
Cutajar had denied that he was responsible for reinstating his brother into the civil service following his dismissal in 2005 for embezzlement of public funds.
He had also declared that he had no role in posting his brother to Malta’s consulate in Shanghai despite being responsible for the civil service.