OPM gave same day approval for Caruana to hire Bogdanovic, no questions asked
Education Minister Justyne Caruana began the administrative process of hiring Daniel Bogdanovic immediately after she was returned to Cabinet in late November 2020, according to a report by the standards commissioner.
The commissioner’s report says that his investigation found clear breaches of ethics and abuse of power and public funds by the education minister. The report also reveals that the prime minister’s office collaborated fully to ‘accommodate’ the minister, up to the point when the story reached the media.
Despite calls for Caruana’s resignation, Prime Minister Robert Abela defended the education minister saying the commissioner’s report “was inconclusive”. The report in fact clearly states that the minister breached the code of ethics and recommends the police take action. A criminal investigation has reportedly been launched.
Opposition Leader Bernard Grech hit back at the prime minister, saying Abela is repeating disgraced former prime minister Joseph Muscat’s defence of Konrad Mizzi and Keith Schembri, who is facing charges of money laundering. “The message from Abela is clear: abuse of power is fine on his watch.”
Bogdanovic and the minister
The close relationship between Justyne Caruana and the player-coach of Għajnsielem FC was an open secret in Gozo since the pair were regularly seen together shortly after Caruana left her husband (former assistant police commissioner Silvio Valletta). Yet the office of the prime minister did not question a formal request by the education minister’s office, less than 10 days after her appointment, to employ Daniel Bogdanovic in her private secretariat.
The chief of staff at the office of the prime minister, Glenn Micallef, approved the request on the same day.
The report reveals that Bogdanovic was at Caruana’s new ministry from her first day in the Floriana building.
This was confirmed to the standards commissioner by John Borg – the permanent secretary at the Gozo ministry – who said that he had ‘heard’ that as soon as Caruana became minister, Bogdanovic stopped reporting for work in Gozo where he had been put on the government’s community workers scheme in 2018.
Borg said he took immediate action to formalise ‘this transfer’ and sent all the information to Frank Fabri, his counterpart at the education ministry.
Justyne Caruana and her spokesperson, Etienne St John, always denied that Bogdanovic formed part of the Minister’s private secretariat, despite records to prove his employment.
According to the Head of Customer Care at the minister’s private secretariat, Johnny Camilleri, “Bogdanovic was one of us” and was treated as a member of the secretariat.
With education ministry business cards showing his designation as “coordinator”, Bogdanovic was immediately provided with a laptop and a secretariat car funded by taxpayers, which he used regularly, parking it outside his own residence.
Bogdanovic was not entitled to the use of a car, Camilleri told the commissioner that “he was using it for ministry related business.”
The report shows that while on 2 December the OPM gave its authorisation for the employment of Bogdanovic within the minister’s private secretariat as a customer care official – the highest paid category he was entitled to – Caruana went on to file a new request on 16 December, through her aide Paul Debattista, to award Bogdanovic a direct order to “coordinate work in Gozo schools” on a part-time basis at €20,000 a year.
The finance ministry approved this direct order on the same day it received the request, though the order was put aside soon after the first media reports about Bogdanovic and Caruana started making headlines.
Sudden change of heart
On 15 January, just a few days after Caruana publicly denied that she had hired Bogdanovic to work in her private secretariat, consultant Paul Debattista, on her direct instructions, wrote to the direct orders office requesting to delete his original request, replacing it instead with a fresh request for Bogdanovic to be contracted to write a report on the National Sports School, for €5,000 a month.
This payment was in addition to his salary at the ministry.
The direct order was later approved, and a contract drawn up by Debattista was signed in mid-February. In the end, the report was almost entirely written by Debattista himself, the standards commissioner concluded.
While the contract stipulated that Bogdanovic would be paid €15,000 at the end of his assignment, it was found that he was actually paid €5,900 soon after the contract was signed, when work on the report had just started.
The standards commissioner’s probe found that Paul Debattista even wrote out Bogdanovic’s invoice – having drafted it, Debattista sent it to Bogdanovic via e-mail “to print and sign”.
We have a problem, abort mission
After the press revealed the abusive contract, Prime Minister Robert Abela finally intervened saying the contract would be terminated.
The standards commissioner’s report establishes that the following day, 23 March, the OPM ordered Bogdanovic’s contract to be rescinded with immediate effect.
Bogdanovic had already been paid €5,900 and, in defiance of the prime minister’s instructions to cancel the contract, Debattista still sought to make a further payment to Bogdanovic.
On 25 March, two days after the prime minister’s orders, Debattista sent Bogdanovic an invoice to sign and asked the ministry’s administration to pay another €9,400 to Bogdanovic for the report.
This latest attempt to pay the minister’s protégée was ‘fortunately’ never implemented by the Treasury Department, the standards commissioner said.