Health Minister and Labour leadership hopeful Chris Fearne has removed his chief of staff Carmen Sammut over a conflict of interest that had been flagged by Times of Malta when she first joined his private secretariat in 2018.

In comments on TVM’s Xtra on Thursday, Mr Fearne said he had asked a person who was close to him to move aside because a potential conflict of interest involving her husband had been flagged. He did not say who this person was and what role had been occupied.

Contacted about this and asked whether he was referring to Ms Sammut, Mr Fearne told Times of Malta that in order to emphasise that “not only is good governance ensured but is seen to be ensured”, Ms Sammut had resigned her post early in December.

Mr Fearne hinted at Ms Sammut's sacking at around the 25 minute mark. 

At the time, Times of Malta had reported that Mr Fearne had dismissed the suggestion his chief of staff may have a conflict of interest over her commercial links.

When she was appointed Mr Fearne’s chief of staff at the end of 2018, Ms Sammut had also served as a director and shareholder of several commercial companies, including Mall Systems Ltd. The latter IT company has been supplying services to the Health Ministry and its various entities that fall under Mr Fearne’s political remit since Labour was returned to power in 2013.

Most of the government’s procurement from the IT company was done through direct orders, without any competitive call for tenders.

Times of Malta had also reported in 2018 that Ms Sammut’s recruitment had raised eyebrows among government quarters, particularly because of a possible conflict of interest in the provision of current and future IT services to the ministry or entities falling under its umbrella.

Despite this, Mr Fearne, through his spokespersons, had repeatedly dismissed conflict of interest concerns, insisting Ms Sammut no longer served as a director of the IT firms.

In November, just a few weeks before Mr Fearne announced he would be contesting the Labour leadership race, Times of Malta had asked whether Ms Sammut still formed part of his private secretariat.  At the time, a Health Ministry spokeswoman had insisted Ms Sammut still served as the minister’s chief of staff.

In his replies yesterday, Mr Fearne also said the contract in question was awarded under [former health minister] Godfrey Farrugia’s watch and therefore “presents no conflict of interest with Ms Sammut’s position”.