Education Minister Evarist Bartolo has admitted he should not have used a private e-mail account in correspondence on claims of corruption, even if no official policy banning the practice exists.

Amidst the controversy surrounding Mr Bartolo’s handling of claims of abuse by a former senior official at the Foundation for Tomorrow’s Schools, the minister’s use of a private Hotmail account to communicate with Philip Rizzo, the FTS’s outgoing CEO, has, so far, been a minor, albeit troubling, side note.

Mr Rizzo brought the situation to light by advising the minister to “check his Hotmail” before denying that he had been informed of claims of corruption in the issuing of direct orders for the renovation of government schools.

Mr Rizzo drew parallels with US presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s own well-publicised e-mails controversy, a major issue in the recent election.

Questioned about the matter, Mr Bartolo told the Times of Malta: “Administratively it shouldn’t happen but it doesn’t change the nature of things. Just because you’re using Hotmail it doesn’t mean you’re hiding anything. The information Rizzo received often came through gmail or Onvol. It’s not the issue.”

He tabled copies of e-mails and text messages he exchanged with Mr Rizzo in Parliament last week but his use of a private e-mail server to conduct official government business has raised questions, including by Nationalist MP Charlo Bonnici, who asked Mr Bartolo about it following his ministerial statement on the claims last week.

Just because you’re using Hotmail it doesn’t mean you’re hiding anything

Mr Bonnici told this newspaper: “They were communicating as a government minister and public official, so they should not have been using private e-mails. We all know what happened in America on a similar issue.

“There’s also a question of accountability when the subject matter of the e-mails – claims of corruption – was so important.”

Principal Permanent Secretary Mario Cutajar, however, confirmed there existed “no such policy regulating the use of private e-mail accounts by public officers”.

A Nationalist Party spokesman, meanwhile, said the party would forbid the use of private e-mail addresses for conducting ministerial work if in government. Such a measure was included in the PN’s good governance proposals, published last year.

Michael Zammit Maempel, a lawyer specialising in data protection, said the issue stemmed from the fact that correspondence in a private e-mail account was hidden from the scrutiny of the public – beyond the reach of a Freedom of Information Act request – and, potentially, State entities such as the Auditor General.

“That’s why you have to use public channels of communication when in public office,” he said. “It’s about accountability in the broadest of senses. There has to be a communication trail,” Dr Zammit Maempel said.

This is not the first time such an issue has cropped up. During the scandal surrounding the appropriation of Café Premier, in Valletta, last year, it had emerged that Prime Minister Joseph Muscat had used his personal e-mail address while conducting government business.

The Opposition had described the move as part of a “calculated effort to hide the scandal” but Dr Muscat insisted there was nothing untoward – he “always” used his private e-mail, he had said at the time.

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