Permanent Secretary for Education Frank Fabri’s handling of his responsibilities has now been condemned by three separate independent institutions – the standards commissioner, the office of the ombudsman and the courts. Yet despite his minister being removed, he remains in place.
In the conclusions of his investigation into disgraced former education minister Justyne Caruana’s decision to award a €15,000 contract to Daniel Bogdanovic, a football player known to be personally close to Caruana, Standards Commissioner George Hyzler described the same ministry’s permanent secretary as “evasive” following his failure to answer crucial questions.
The office of the ombudsman has described the actions of both Fabri and MCAST’s administration as “oppressive and tantamount to degrading”. The civil court had confirmed lecturer Peter Gatt’s request for a prohibitory injunction on his transfer to a secondary school, calling on Fabri and the education authorities to quit attempting to “play around” with various different terms to describe the transfer itself.
In his report, Hyzler argued that Fabri’s role as the signatory on contracts issued by the ministry should have been a reflection of his responsibilities to safeguard national resources and ensure they are used well.
“In my opinion, what Dr Fabri could have done to ensure his obligations were carried out adequately was to not sign the contract, not signing it and then coming back with stretched-out arguments to attempt to justify it,” Hyzler’s report reads.
Bogdanovic was originally employed with the government through the Community Work Scheme, a scheme which was ostensibly meant to provide employment training and opportunities to jobless individuals but which The Shift has exposed as a system being abused to retain workers on the government payroll.
One of Hyzler’s main conclusions revolved around the fact that the testimonies of both Bogdanovic and Paul Debattista, the former John Dalli aide turned education ministry consultant, raised “serious doubts” about the authorship of the report.
Additionally, given that Bogdanovic was still employed with the Community Work Scheme while carrying out the review of the sports curriculum, Hyzler questioned how Bogdanovic was supposed to carry out such work in such a limited time frame on a part-time basis, especially given the fact that he also works as Għajnsielem FC’s player-coach.
This isn’t the first time Fabri’s conduct has landed him in hot water – in 2010, the police had brought charges against John Borg, the owner of a cleaning services company, alleging that he had bribed Fabri when he was at the helm of Rabat’s local council. Borg, who was eventually acquitted, had provided phone recordings to the police in which he had recounted that it was actually Fabri who had solicited the bribes, with the agreement falling out when Fabri had asked for an increase.
When asked to give evidence in court over the allegations made by the contractor, Fabri had chosen to avail himself of his right not to answer, with no other witnesses produced by the police to give evidence on the alleged corruption. The police have never arraigned Fabri on this case.
‘Complicated answers that don’t go anywhere’
Hyzler repeatedly called out Fabri for “complicated answers that don’t go anywhere”, especially for Fabri’s insistence on describing Bogdanovic’s ‘work’ on the sports curriculum as a contract-for-service rather than a permanent hire for the ministry.
Furthermore, Fabri did not convince the standards commissioner with his explanation as to why the contract was issued with such urgency. While Fabri claimed that the order was issued to ensure enough time to carry it out by the start of the following academic year, Hyzler questioned why this was the first time someone who was not qualified to carry out the works was employed to do so.
The commissioner also questioned why Fabri claimed that the finance ministry had approved the order when no formal approval was issued by the Direct Orders Office, which had flagged the order as excessive and was left waiting for a response on an invoice amounting to €5,000.
Fabri was chastised for failing to answer questions about whether a formal call for applications for the contract was issued, as well as avoiding questions about who ordered the drawing up of Bogdanovic’s contract and how he was identified as the ideal candidate for the position beyond his experience as a football player.
The permanent secretary claimed that he had no prior knowledge of Bogdanovic’s past brushes with the law on charges of misuse of telecommunications equipment and for failing to properly store weapons, nor the news reports which had referred to Bogdanovic’s acquittal over charges of threatening his estranged wife.
Fabri stated that a clean certificate of police conduct issued two weeks prior to the termination of Bogdanovic’s contract was in their possession and that this had been deemed enough reassurance in terms of his conduct. Fabri maintained that, overall, he knew very little about Bogdanovic, describing him repeatedly as “someone who is merely a name and a surname on a list” to him.
This contrasts with the permanent secretary’s initial attempts to outline Bogdanovic’s suitability as a candidate for the role; during the second interview with the standards commissioner, Fabri went to great lengths to talk about Bogdanovic’s professional career as an athlete, implying that some measure of due diligence had been carried out.
‘Playing with words’
Beyond the standards commissioner’s report, the court upheld MCAST lecturer Peter Gatt’s request for a warrant of a prohibitory injunction after the institution sought to transfer Gatt to a secondary school in Pembroke, which Gatt maintains was a transfer ordered due to his complaints about a “racket” being carried out at MCAST.
He said MCAST syllabi were being drawn up by outsourced individuals rather than by the lecturers themselves, in spite of their insistence on drawing up the syllabi they’d be teaching.
Judge Joanne Vella Cuschieri had told off the education authorities for “playing with words” when trying to convince the court there was a difference between references to Gatt’s transfer to a secondary school and the education ministry’s preference for the term ‘redeployment’.
In her final ruling on the matter, Vella Cuschieri referred specifically to the ombudsman’s investigation into Gatt’s complaints about unfair dismissal. Education commissioner Vincent de Gaetano, who had investigated Gatt’s complaints, had described the decision to transfer Gatt as “vindictive“.