The Malta Independent 21 September 2019, Saturday

Gafa’s contract cannot be disclosed as he is not ‘top management’ - civil service head

Rebekah Cilia Sunday, 1 September 2019, 09:00 Last update: about 21 days ago

Following the refusal of a Freedom of Information (FOI) Act request for mystery diplomat Neville Gafa’s contract, this newsroom filed a complaint through the Public Authority’s Internal Complaints Procedure, which was again refused.

The justification given by the head of the civil service for the second refusal was that Gafa’s “employment contract is not regarded as top management and, therefore, as guided by the Data Protection Unit, the contract is not being disclosed in terms of Article 5(3)(a) of the Freedom of Information Act.”

Furthermore, the reply stated that Gafa’s contract is based on the already-published manual Engagement of Staff for Ministers’ Secretariats and that he has been employed with the prime minister’s secretariat since January 2019.

The original request was made on 2 July, after more than seven months of unanswered questions and stonewalling by the government, ministries, as well as Gafa himself. A copy of Gafa’s contract was requested together with information on which ministry or entity Gafa works for and in what capacity.

The basis for the first refusal was that the requested information is publicly available by virtue of a parliamentary question tabled on 8 July. The parliamentary question referenced in the FOI reply gave details of Gafa’s position and salary scale but did not divulge his contract.

The FOI Act establishes the general public’s right to information held by public authorities in order to promote added transparency and accountability in government, according to the FOI website.

The Act also gives the right to seek review through the Public Authority’s Internal Complaints Procedure when the outcome is not satisfactory. 

Since the review has now been availed of, and once again been refused, this newsroom has carried on with the process and sought investigation and review by the Information and Data Protection Commissioner.

An email was sent to the commissioner and a reply is still pending.

Questions about Gafa’s position within the government arose in November 2018, when he held diplomatic talks in Tripoli. The Libyan government’s communication office and the country’s interior ministry described Gafa as ‘a special envoy of Prime Minister Joseph Muscat’.

This had also been seen in pictures uploaded on various Libyan social media sites and online news portals.

When contacted by this newsroom at the time and asked why Gafa had been in Libya and whether he held a diplomatic passport, Foreign Minister Carmelo Abela insisted that Gafa was not employed by his ministry and did not hold a diplomatic passport.

Gafa had labelled this trip a ‘personal visit’ and the Office of the Prime Minister insisted that it had questioned him about it. The OPM also denied Gafa was representing the government.

Last June, an image of Gafa surfaced showing that he had been to least one diplomatic meeting in Tripoli between Malta’s ambassador to Libya, Charles Saliba, and Libyan Deputy Prime Minister Ahmed Maiteeq, during which Malta said it was willing to re-open its embassy in Tripoli.

Prime Minister Muscat subsequently confirmed that Gafa had been in Tripoli on behalf of the Maltese government, adding that he had known about the trip but did not know which ministry employed Gafa.

“He is employed by the government but I don’t know what his contract says because it’s not available to me at this moment,” Muscat had told journalists.

On 8 July, Muscat confirmed, in response to a parliamentary question, that Gafa was employed as a coordinator within his own office – a role which he is said to have taken up in January 2019.

Muscat also said that Gafa had been employed as a customer care assistant within the Ministry for Health between June 2013 and April 2014. At the time, he was employed on salary scale 11.

Between April 2014 and December 2018, Gafa was employed as a projects director with the Foundation for Medical Services and has been employed as a coordinator within the Office of the Prime Minister since January.

Asked for details on Gafa’s salary, Muscat referred to the Engagement of Staff for Ministers’ Secretariats document, which states that OPM coordinators are scale 6 employees, with a gross yearly income of €25,227. He also has an overtime allowance of 20 per cent of scale 7 (€4,684), a car allowance of €1,864 and a telephone allowance of €1,165.

Asked for a description of his duties, the prime minister simply referred to Gafa’s role as a coordinator. He also said there was only one occasion when Gafa had formed part of a government delegation visitng Libya.

Apart from being a Labour activist, Gafa was allegedly involved in a medical visas racket linked to Libyan refugees and was subsequently sacked by the health ministry.

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