Economy Minister Chris Cardona has been ordered to give Times of Malta access to contracts he had given to a number of personal advisors, in a victory for freedom of information.

The decision by the Data Protection Commissioner came after a long-drawn legal battle prompted by the minister’s stiff resistance to provide the information.

The case goes back to a request by Times of Malta, under the provisions of the Freedom of Information Act, to be given access to the contracts of Nadine Lia, recently appointed magistrate, Mario Azzopardi, who had assumed responsibility for a controversial €750 bar bill racked up in Dubai as the minister’s chief of staff, as well as four other advisors.

The ministry refused the request.

After a review of the request, the commissioner asked for a copy of the contracts in order to make a decision on whether they should be published.

But the ministry again declined. Instead, it filed an appeal before the Information and Data Protection Appeals Tribunal and questioned the commissioner’s power to ask for the information.

The tribunal threw out the minister’s challenge and the commissioner, after viewing the documents, decided in favour of Times of Malta, ruling that it must be given access to the contracts pertaining to the five advisors.

The ministry was also found to have infringed the spirit of the Freedom of Information Act by denying the provision of the data despite repeated requests and complaints from Times of Malta.

Dr Cardona with his advisor Mario Azzopardi.Dr Cardona with his advisor Mario Azzopardi.

“The (Data Protection) Commissioner considers that there is no reason to justify that the disclosure of these contracts would prejudice the effectiveness of procedures and the attainment of object of the Public Authority (the ministry),” the commissioner said in his decision.

“The role in question (minister’s consultant) brings with it a degree of accountability, an element to ensure transparency, which is necessary in a democratic society,” he concluded.

Dr Lia, on behalf of the ministry, had argued that neither the Data Commissioner nor Times of Malta had any legal right to see the contracts, arguing that these were “of a private nature”. The appeals tribunal, presided over by Anna Mallia, rejected this argument, saying the commissioner was legally bound to grant access to the contracts.

The issue cropped up after the last general election when Dr Cardona decided to replace Mr Azzopardi – his chief canvasser on the Birkirkara district – as his ministry’s chief of staff.

Instead of terminating his engagement, however, the Economy Minister had ordered that Mr Azzopardi – the owner of a clothes shops in Birkirkara and a business associate of Dr Cardona in a property development company – be put on the government’s payroll as his advisor.

Asked for the conditions attached to this contract, including his financial remuneration, Dr Cardona had refused to give any details, prompting the FOI request.

Mr Azzopardi hit the headlines on various occasions in his former job as Dr Cardona’s right-hand man.

In 2015, it was revealed that during a three-day ministerial visit to Dubai, Dr Cardona’s three-member delegation had run up a bill of €750 worth of alcoholic beverages from the hotel’s mini bar. The minister declared that the drinks were not consumed from his hotel room.

Following an outcry, Mr Azzopardi assumed responsibility for the purchases, declaring he was going to pay the amount back to the exchequer.

Apart from Dr Lia and Mr Azzopardi, Minister Cardona also engaged Mario Borg Sillato, Alexander Farrugia as well as former Labour MP Joseph Sammut as his consultants.

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