The Malta Independent 17 November 2019, Sunday

No reply to FOI complaint following refusal to disclose Neville Gafa’s contract

Rebekah Cilia Sunday, 3 November 2019, 08:45 Last update: about 14 days ago

Two months have elapsed since this newsroom filed a Freedom of Information (FOI) complaint seeking investigation and review from the Information and Data Protection Commissioner regarding the disclosure of the contract of mystery diplomat Neville Gafa.

Gafa once again made headlines this week as the libel case against The Malta Independent on Sunday resumed. During Monday’s sitting, a number of witnesses testified against Gafa on the medical visa scandal, telling Magistrate Victor Axiak that he had first demanded €2,500 for medical visas and then offered them thousands of euros to buy their silence.

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Subsequently, Gafa filed constitutional proceedings against the attorney general, decrying the amateurish” way in which the sitting had been held.

Gafa filed legal proceedings against The Malta Independent on Sunday editor David Lindsay in 2016 over articles implicating him in the Libyan medical visas scandal.

This newsroom made the original FOI request on 2 July, after more than seven months of unanswered questions and stonewalling by the government, ministries, and Gafa himself.

A copy of Gafas contract was requested, together with information on which ministry or entity Gafa works for and in what capacity.

The request was refused based on the grounds that such information was made public through a parliamentary question tabled on 8 July. However, the parliamentary question referenced in the FOI reply gave details of Gafas position and salary scale, but did not divulge his contract.

The Freedom of Information Act establishes the general public’s right to information held by public authorities in the interest of transparency and accountability in government, according to the state’s website.

The act also ensures the right to seek review through the public authority’s internal complaints procedure when the outcome of a request is unsatisfactory. This review was availed of by this newsroom, but the request was again denied.

The justification provided by the head of the civil service was that Gafas 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 said that Gafas contract was based on the already-published guidelines ‘Engagement of Staff for Ministers’ Secretariats’ and that he had been employed with the prime minister’s secretariat since January 2019.

Once that review was availed of and refused, this newsroom followed the procedure established by law to seek investigation and review by the Information and Data Protection Commissioner.

An email was sent to the commissioner on 28 August and confirmation of its receipt was received from the commissioner’s office, along with confirmation that the complaint would be investigated.

Two months later, no reply has been forthcoming, despite a reminder sent on 19 September. To this reminder, the office replied: The investigation on this case is ongoing. Rest assured that when the commissioner issues his decision, you will be notified accordingly.”

According to the FOI website, “complaints or requests for investigation and review addressed to the Commissioner shall be lodged within a maximum of sixty (60) days from the receipt of the final communication from the Public Authority concerned. The Information and Data Protection Commissioner shall answer your complaint as soon as possible, however, pending such decision, no further action will be taken by the Public Authority.”

Although it is noted that the commissioner will make a decision “as soon as possible”, a time frame is not stipulated.

Questions surrounding Gafas position within the government arose in November 2018, when he held diplomatic talks in Tripoli. The Libyan governments communications office and the countrys interior ministry described Gafa as a special envoy of Prime Minister Joseph Muscat.

Images of the meeting were also published on various Libyan social media sites and 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 Gafà was not employed by his ministry and did not hold a diplomatic passport.

Gafa had labelled the trip a personal visitand the Office of the Prime Minister insisted that it had questioned him about it. The OPM also denied Gafa represented the government.

Last June, an image of Gafa surfaced showing that he had been to least one diplomatic meeting in Tripoli between Maltas 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 dont know what his contract says because its 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 in fact 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 Gafas 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 Gafas role as a coordinator. He also said there was only one occasion when Gafa had formed part of a government delegation on visits to 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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