Civil Service head and Cabinet secretary Mario Cutajar on Thursday refused to reply to questions on ‘solo’ trips abroad by Economy Minister Chris Cardona, which the National Audit Office flagged.
Addressing a press conference on good governance, Mr Cutajar directed this newspaper to the office of the Prime Minister when asked whether Dr Cardona was justified to spend €2,600 a night in a hotel in Monaco for business meetings during the F1 Grand Prix weekend.
The Times of Malta enquired whether the trips in question were in line with Cabinet rules and such practice amounted to good governance. Arguing the press conference was not on this subject, Mr Cutajar turned to a Labour Party reporter, inviting her to ask a question.
All ministers are expected to seek approval for every visit abroad
When Times of Malta insisted on an answer, Mr Cutajar accused the journalist of being rude. According to a manual of Cabinet procedures, issued by Mr Cutajar himself in 2014, all ministers are expected to seek approval for every visit abroad and give details on members of delegations, among other details.
The manual also lays down that, as Cabinet Secretary, it is Mr Cutajar’s responsibility to coordinate approvals – or otherwise – by the Prime Minister for such overseas trips and to make sure that a report on meetings held is then submitted.
The Office of the Prime Minister has so far failed to declare Dr Cardona’s solo trips were given the green light by the Cabinet office.
According to information published in Parliament and an audit by the NAO, the minister made at least 20 trips abroad to conduct “business meetings” without being accompanied by government officials, as is normal practice.
The trips, including over weekends and holiday periods, were to Russia, Dubai, Budapest, Monaco and Warsaw among other destinations.
The Auditor General found that a three-night visit to Monaco in 2015 cost the Exchequer €11,000, including €2,600 a night in an unnamed hotel.
When documentation on the expenses claimed were sought, Dr Cardona’s office told the NAO most of the invoices were “misplaced”. The minister insists he had not attended the Grand Prix.
The NAO also said it had found “irregularities” in a sample of missions abroad made by the minister and his delegations.
In the press conference, Mr Cutajar said the government had accepted 80 per cent of the recommendations made by the NAO in 2016, adding this was proof of good governance.