Former CEO Jeffrey Curmi told a parliamentary committee on Wednesday that he resigned from Transport Malta just 11 months into a three-year term because the transport minister wanted him out.

Curmi, a retired army brigadier, was being questioned by the parliamentary public appointments committee ahead of his appointment as ambassador to The Netherlands.

He said the minister, Aaron Farrugia, offered to appoint him CEO of another government entity so that he could move out of Transport Malta.

“I refused and I quit,” Curmi told MPs. “The minister asked me to move out of the way and I did. Then, the prime minister offered to appoint me ambassador and I accepted.”

Curmi, however, was tight-lipped about the nature of his differences with the minister despite repeated questions by Opposition MPs Adrian Delia and Karol Aquilina.  

“On some issues we agreed, on others we didn’t, and I’m not necessarily saying we disagreed on good governance,” he said.

“[We disagreed] on our style of leadership. A minister is responsible for ministerial duties and a CEO is responsible for a CEO’s duties.”

“So you’re saying there was political interference,” Delia said. “You’re saying he tried to interfere in your work as a CEO?”

But Curmi was not so keen on throwing his former boss under the bus.

“He wasn’t necessarily trying to interfere. It was more in the sense that I couldn’t do certain things my way. I’m either going to lead in my way or else, if I don’t enjoy trust, I leave.” 

Decision taken by Robert Abela

When Curmi took over Transport Malta last year, Times of Malta reported that the decision to appoint him was taken directly by Prime Minister Robert Abela who had tasked him with a cleanup of the regulator which has faced a series of corruption, abuse and mismanagement claims in recent months.

Last Sunday  Times of Malta revealed a racket involving Transport Minister Ian Borg, officials in various ministries and Transport Malta officials.

WhatsApp chats showed Borg, his canvasser Jesmond Zammit and his ministry personnel regularly piled pressure on Transport Malta’s director of licensing Clint Mansueto to “help” candidates at different stages of the licensing process.

On Wednesday, Curmi confirmed that it was Robert Abela who asked him to take the helm of Transport Malta and that he told him to run it “with integrity”.

'I did not want to interfere in police investigations on driving licences' 

He also said that at the time he was appointed CEO, the police were already investigating allegations regarding driving licences and he could not do much about it except allow the police to work freely and assist them whenever they needed.

He said he did not know how many people were involved in the racket and did not ask for that information because he did not want to interfere.

He also did not ask the police whether he should suspend or revoke licences that were suspected to have been obtained wrongfully as he felt it was not his job to interfere in police investigations.

He did, however, ask for a report about the licensing process and how it could be improved, but it hadn’t yet been completed when he left.

Brigadier Curmi (at head of table) replies to questions by MPs.Brigadier Curmi (at head of table) replies to questions by MPs.

Asked by  Aquilina whether he smelt anything fishy during his tenure at Transport Malta, Curmi would only say that when he did smell that things were fishy, he took the necessary action required of his role.

But he did not say much more about the difficulties he found at the helm and steered clear of mentioning any scandal surrounding the authority. He insisted that the biggest challenge of running the authority was restructuring it to work more effectively and efficiently.

Curmi said he enjoyed his time at Transport Malta nonetheless.

In the first part of Wednesday's committee meeting Curmi spoke about his service in the armed forces and his credentials.

He said he is a science and public administration graduate. He graduated from officer training at Sandhurst and spent many of his army years as an explosives expert, helping in hundreds of magisterial inquiries. He also formed part of several delegations abroad. 

“Military service exposes you to some of the greatest experiences in foreign policy,” he told the committee.

'Caruana Galizia bomb investigation was only one I refused to work on'

During the grilling, Aquilina asked Curmi whether he felt responsible for helping foster the “culture of impunity” that led to Daphne Caruana Galizia’s assassination. Once the army was one of the major players in national security, wasn’t Curmi, as its commander, responsible for being part of the state that failed Daphne Caruana Galizia, as the public inquiry had concluded?

Curmi disagreed. The army, he said, assisted the police in public order only when requested. During times of war, it could be argued that the army was responsible for national security, but during peacetime, the army only assisted the police whenever they needed help. So it was not fair to say that he or the army were in any way responsible for the journalist’s murder.

He said, however, that while he had worked on the investigation of every bomb case in Malta since 1998, he had refused to work on the Caruana Galizia bomb. 

“I advised the authorities to get people from abroad, even though I was asked to help several times. I wanted justice to be done and to be seen to be done and I didn’t want my presence in the investigation to shed doubt on the integrity of the process.”

Aquilina pointed out, however, that Caruana Galizia’s car bomb murder followed a string of other car bombings that had seriously injured or killed other people in the previous months. So, he asked, hadn't Curmi felt that  something needed to be done to stop those bombings?

Curmi said there were various bombing peaks. There was another one in 2007 and another in 2002, and the army could not know when there would be a peak. The army’s role was to dispose of explosives, make them safe and study how they were built to help investigators.

“The army doesn’t go into who planted a bomb or why. I investigated how it was built,” he told MPs.

“I risked my life working on bombs. I spent months rummaging through debris to put a bomb together again to understand how it was built.”

Catapulted to the highest army rank

Aquilina and Delia were particularly persistent in understanding how in 2013, Curmi was rapidly promoted from major to brigadier and army commander in just four months after Labour was returned to power in 2013.

Curmi insisted there was nothing irregular about his promotions and appointments and normal procedure was followed.

When Aquilina and Delia pressed him on whether it was normal for any officer to rise that rapidly through various ranks, he continued to insist there was nothing irregular but admitted he “didn’t think” there was a precedent to it.

He said he had served the army loyally, competently and honestly and he was disappointed by the criticism, having risked his life dealing with bombs many times. 

In 2021, the Ombudsman found that the accelerated promotion of Curmi and other army officers was “outright illegal”, having been ordered directly by then-home affairs minister Manuel Mallia and carried out behind the back of the AFM commander.

Curmi said he did not agree with the Ombudsman’s conclusion and insisted there was nothing irregular.

Appointed ambassador

Following the grilling, the committee approved Curmi's nomination to serve as ambassador, with the Opposition MPs voting against. 

He will assume the role later this year, succeeding current ambassador and career diplomat Mark Pace. 

According to the latest published budget estimates, an ambassador is paid a Scale 3 annual basic salary of €41,767, and sources say that could go up to around €100,000 with perks and allowances, including rent.

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