National Heritage Minister Jose’ Herrera has placed a retired army officer, and his main canvasser, as chief operations officer at the Manoel Theatre, continuing his trend of stuffing agencies and departments that fall under his responsibility with supporters.
Retired Colonel Pierre Vassallo, who until a few months ago served as Herrera’s chief of staff at the Minister’s private office, has been afforded a lucrative taxpayer-funded financial package despite his lack of experience in the arts sector.
According to Vassallo’s three-year contract, drawn up by Herrera’s Permanent Secretary Joyce Dimech, the retired AFM officer who already receives a lucrative pension from the army, has been given a package of €55,000. This includes a performance bonus and a raft of perks including transport, communication and an expenses allowance.
The financial package for the retired AFM officer does not take into consideration the lower level of salaries currently in place at the Manoel Theatre.
Manoel Theatre sources told The Shift that neither the board, chaired by lawyer Michael Grech, nor the artistic director, Kenneth Zammit Tabona, were consulted on the recruitment of their chief operations officer, despite the institution’s independence from the government.
A chequered past
The retired colonel is known to be one of the closest political aides of Minister Herrera and has served as his chief of staff since 2017. Until a few months earlier, Vassallo was serving at the AFM where he had spent 30 years.
A few weeks after Labour’s return to power, Vassallo was fast-tracked with various promotions together with the current AFM brigadier who got some four promotions in a few months.
Before Labour’s return to power, Vassallo had unsuccessfully fought a long legal battle in which he claimed that he was unfairly treated by the AFM when he was denied promotions. His lawyer during the failed cases was none other than Herrera.
After retiring on a well-paid pension thanks to the promotions he obtained after 2013, Vassallo immediately joined Minister Herrera as his chief of staff.
Minister Herrera’s nepotism is reaching new heights. While 2020 has been a challenge for artists in Malta due to the pandemic, friends of the Labour Party were taken care of with more than €2.2 million in direct orders dished out by the Arts Ministry during the first six months of the year, according to information published in the Government Gazette.
A few weeks ago, The Shift revealed that Herrera gave a ‘phantom job’ to Charlon Gouder as an executive at the Arts Council.
Gouder, a former private secretary to Minister Herrera, already works full time as a practising lawyer and is the chief executive of the tuna industry lobby group. He was given this position while he was acting as an advisor to Minister Herrera when the latter was responsible for fisheries.
Robert Abela sits on the fence
While pressure is mounting on Robert Abela to rein in Herrera’s extravagance, particularly from Environment Minister Aaron Farrugia and Parliamentary Secretary Deo Debatatista, both contesting the same district as Herrera, the prime minister seems reluctant to act.
Herrera, through the arts council, has dished out thousands to his district’s band clubs and other district clubs under an NGO scheme. He even put forward Marsa as the cultural capital for next year, allocating some €200,000 in funds to organise parties and ‘popular’ activities in his district.
While Herrera is recruiting people from his district in various government agencies, his ministry is regularly contacting constituents asking if they ‘need anything’ the minister can deliver – a common practice among ministers in the lead up to an election.