Embattled Education Minister Evarist Bartolo yesterday admitted that he was first informed of alleged abuse by his canvasser Edward Caruana in April and not August, as he originally claimed.

Mr Bartolo had said on Saturday in a right of reply sent to this newspaper: “I was made aware of the allegations by Philip Rizzo at the end of August 2016 and not April 2016.” In Parliament yesterday, Mr Bartolo said that on April 16, he was informed by Mr Rizzo that Mr Caruana was insisting on personally delivering payment cheques to contractors.

However, the veteran minister continued to fend off accusations from ex-Foundation for Tomorrow’s Schools CEO Philip Rizzo that he had tried to dissuade Mr Rizzo from reporting (“formalising”) the irregularities.

Mr Bartolo told Parliament that he only instructed Mr Rizzo to wait for evidence and “a smoking gun” before taking action against Mr Caruana, his canvasser since 1992.

Quoting from his reply to Mr Rizzo’s message, the minister said he had told the CEO to treat Mr Caruana “like any normal employee” – fairly but firmly.  “No one is outside good governance regulations… let us address issues effectively through structures.”

During yesterday’s parlimentary sitting, Speaker Anġlu Farrugia ordered Mr Bartolo to table the emails quoted in his ministerial statement.

These developments confirm that Mr Bartolo had indeed been informed of his canvasser’s alleged abuse five months before taking the case to the police. The Sunday Times of Malta reported Mr Rizzo inviting the minister to check his Hotmail account to get his dates straight.

Pressed about this earlier in the day, Mr Bartolo told this newspaper he had checked his private email account and conceded that Mr Rizzo had originally reported abuses to him in April. “[In April] Mr Rizzo told me  that works done in Gozo in mid-2015 were made against normal procedures and not authorised by the FTS – we are talking about some €25,000 – and also that [Edward] Caruana was insisting that he be given the payments so that he could deliver them personally to the contractors involved. I told him [Rizzo] in writing not to allow anything that went against the rules.”

Mr Bartolo said that in June, Mr Rizzo had met all the contractors involved and one of them had informed him that the invoices issued for works were not his and had been forged. “When Rizzo passed this information to me, I told him to wait, as we first needed to have the evidence before proceeding. I couldn’t just rely on claims,” Mr Bartolo said.

Insisting that he wanted “a smoking gun” in order to take action against his canvasser, Mr Bartolo said the evidence only emerged at the end of August. “The minute I was told by Paul Bonello (the person I asked to investigate) that there was prima facie evidence of abuse, I instructed Rizzo to make sure Caruana had nothing to do any more with the FTS or the ministry and to report the matter to the police.

“I didn’t even wait for Rizzo do this, as I sent the evidence we found straight to the police.”

Mr Bartolo said that between April and August, Mr Rizzo had told him about a series of other abuses including that FTS was buying material that was not being used for school projects, about false invoices and other claims.

“At no stage between April and August did I instruct Rizzo not to investigate or to try to conceal anything. I always supported Rizzo and took his side. That is why I am really hurt by his accusations,” he said.

Admitting Mr Caruana was a close canvasser who had been working for him in his Rabat constituency, he said he had never defended abuse and did not feel responsible for Mr Caruana’s actions, though he was employed at the FTS on his instructions as his person of trust. He repeated this later in Parliament when asked by Opposition MPs if he was going to shoulder political responsibility.

“He was my person of trust only while I had trust in him. I took action against him as soon as I had the information in hand,” he said. Mr Bartolo refuted suggestions that he should offer his resignation to the Prime Minster and said he did not feel he should, as he “did nothing wrong”.

The minister also avoided replying directly as to whether his permanent secretary, Joseph Caruana, Edward’s brother, should make way due to the conflict of interest arising from this case. “In this affair, the Principal Permanent Secretary [Mario Cutajar] has instructed another director general to handle the issue,” Mr Bartolo said.

Q&A (excerpt)

In comments made to the media yesterday, Mr Bartolo said that he was told about some €25,000 in claims on works in Gozo which were not authorised by the FTS.

“In April, I told Rizzo not to proceed with payments. At that stage I put my mind at rest that we were not paying a single euro on these dubious works with suspicions that they were based on false invoices,” he said.

Times of Malta: Were the claims against Mr Caruana?

Yes… Caruana was being mentioned.

On June 23, Mr Rizzo had a meeting with contractors and one of them told him that the invoices were forged.

Rizzo informed me and I told him to wait. I always insisted that it was important to have strong evidence before we proceed.

We couldn’t rest on claims. I think the difference between me and Rizzo is that he is impulsive and wants to act fast and I wanted things to be done properly, as I don’t want to be prosecutor and judge. I told him that it was better if we wait.

On August 23, Rizzo informed me that a supplier in Gozo had taken us to court over unpaid bills… some €5,000. I told him that we should not pay and that now there was a basis upon which we can investigate.

I asked Paul Bonello and he told me that there was a case to proceed. As soon as I was told this, I told Rizzo to transfer Caruana and report to the police.

Mr Rizzo said that in June he sent you an e-mail asking you: “Do we still take no action?” So you did know of the claims at that time.

No, no… I told him…

So was Mr Rizzo lying?

It was a different evaluation as to when I should escalate matters and take the necessary action. I didn’t tell him to hold everything or to stop. I just told him to wait. As soon as –  a month later – the evidence came, I felt that I could proceed to investigate and take the necessary measures.

How can I feel responsible for someone else’s actions?

Are you going to sue Mr Rizzo?

If there is need, yes.

What do you mean? This is serious.

If there is need I take him to court.

There is also the issue of political responsibility. Mr Caruana is not just a canvasser but your main canvasser in Rabat. You are very close to him. Don’t you feel responsible for his actions?

He was a person who used to work for me a lot in my constituency. During the past three years, I had to draw his attention a number of times on how he treated his colleagues… not about any other abuse.

As soon as I got to know about the latest abuses I stopped all contacts with him and took the necessary steps against him.

But he was put at FTS only because he had your trust. Don’t you now feel responsible for his actions?

He had my trust but if I didn’t agree with what he did and took the necessary steps. I don’t feel responsible. As soon as I felt that there was evidence against him, I shouldered my responsibility and took action against him.

So as your person of trust you don’t feel responsible for his actions?

How can I feel responsible for someone else’s actions? I would have been responsible if I didn’t act and kept him doing what he was doing.

I would have been an accomplice at that stage. But, I took action as soon as I knew about the allegations.

Are you ready to submit yourself to a real independent inquiry?

Absolutely. I don’t have a problem with that.

ivan.camilleri@timesofmalta.com

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