Economy Minister Chris Cardona is insisting that people he employed as consultants at his ministry should not have their contracts published as their terms are “private and confidential".
Parting from usual procedure, adopted by the majority of government ministries including the Office of the Prime Minister, which publishes such documents upon a Freedom of Information Act request, Dr Cardona is refusing to follow suit citing legal arguments including the protection of data.
Going a step further, while turning down a request by the Times of Malta to publish the contracts of his consultants, Dr Cardona appeared to challenge the authority of the Data Protection Commissioner, who according to law is authorised to ask for such information in order to determine whether a request for such information is admissible.
According to the Freedom of Information Act, when a ministry refuses a request, an appeal could be filed in front of the Data Protection Commissioner for an investigation into whether the ministry concerned is acting according to law.
The law gives the right to the commissioner to seek the information requested in order to determine if it should be published or not.
Asked by the commissioner to furnish his office with a copy of his consultants’ contracts to investigate the matter, Dr Cardona refused, challenging the Data Protection Commissioner’s authority to make such an inquiry.
It should be the same commissioner who should prevent this information from being published once this is personal and private
Acting on behalf of Dr Cardona, lawyer Nadine Lia, herself a consultant at the ministry whose contract is the subject of the commissioner’s investigation, presented submissions in front of the Information and Data Protection Appeals Tribunal arguing that the commissioner had no right to this information.
“It is not true that the Data Protection Commissioner has some absolute right to ask for every kind of information, even if this is protected,” Dr Lia stressed.
“On the contrary, it should be the same commissioner who, as a regulatory entity, should prevent this information from being published once this is personal and private,” she argued.
When replying to an FOI request, the ministry had told the Times of Malta that Dr Cardona has engaged five consultants at his ministry but added that it won’t publish their conditions and terms of engagement. This newspaper is contesting that decision.
Apart from Dr Lia, who was engaged to provide “ad hoc legal assignments as assigned by the minister”, Mario Borg Sillato, Alexander Farrugia, Joseph Sammut and Mario Azzopardi are also employed as the minister’s advisers.
Mr Azzopardi, a chief canvasser of the minister and until the last election his chief of staff, was given a consultancy contract to “monitor all works of the ministry and update Dr Cardona on a regular basis, attend meetings related to the implementation of the electoral manifesto, coordinate with the chief of staff and perform any other duties as assigned by the minister”.
Mr Azzopardi had hit the headlines in 2015 when according to an investigation by the National Audit Office, during a business trip to Dubai with Dr Cardona, a bill of €750 worth of alcoholic beverages had been consumed from the hotel’s minibar during a three-day official stay.
Dr Cardona had later said that the bill was not his and Mr Azzopardi eventually took the blame and said that he would be refunding the money that had come out of public funds.