Ombudsman recommends ‘radical’ review of army promotions after ‘vitiated’ process

The Ombudsman has recommended to the Home Affairs Minister to “radically review and revise” the existing selection/promotion procedure in the Armed Forces of Malta following a 5-year investigation that found that the promotion of a number of senior officers in 2013 was “vitiated”, lacked integrity and was intended to “produce a desired outcome”.

The government, however, has said that it disagrees with the majority of the findings of the report, which was carried out by two different Ombudsmen – Joseph Said Pullicino until 2016, and Anthony Mifsud from then on.

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The promotions in question included that of AFM Commander Jeffrey Curmi, who was given four promotions – from the rank of Major to Brigadier – in the space of a few months. Besides Jeffrey Curmi, the army promoted another three majors to Lieutenant Colonel: Mark Mallia, Pierre Vassallo and Mark Said.

The selection board had included then deputy chief of staff at the home affairs ministry, Ramona Attard, and head of customer care Clint Cutajar.

Ombudsman Said Pullicino had started to investigate a complaint but his work was hindered by then Home Affairs Minister Manuel Mallia, who had argued that the law precluded the Ombudsman from investigating complaints by Armed Forces of Malta officials before these would have exhausted all other avenues to seek redress. The Ombudsman had won the case and a subsequent appeal, with the court ordering the government to provide the Ombudsman with all documentation necessary for the investigation.

In his conclusions, the Ombudsman found that the standard process had been “turned on its head” in 2013 when the written tests and associated interview on military and technician subjects were dispensed with.

The Ombudsman said it was his opinion that this selection process was “conducted in an unprofessional manner and did not achieve the necessary vigour.”

“The fact that the major part of the objectivity test was lacking, the fact that two persons of trust were appointed on the Board, the fact that military officers and officials specializing in military affairs were missing and the lack of a record of how the candidates answered all militate towards the Ombudsman’s view that this selection process was a screed for the choice made,” Ombudsman Mifsud wrote. “In this sense the selection process lacks integrity and has given cause to an injustice toward the other candidates.”

The Ombudsman argued that, while the Executive is entitled to lay down the policies of the Armed Forces of Malta, the armed forces are not at the service of the Executive but serve the entire nation.

As such, the attainment of the objectives set by the Executive and the implementation of its policies “have to be left in the hands of the Armed Forces themselves,” the Ombudsman opines.

Insisting that promotion exercises need to be open and transparent, the Ombudsman wrote that selection boards have to adopt procedures that are verifiable to the extent that it is possible to determine whether the selection process was just and fair. “The process is undermined if there is even the perception that members of the board are not fully free to arrive at their own objective and independent assessment of candidates, or if they are subjected to undue influence, or even worse, direct interference.”

The Ombudsman said he was satisfied that “the facts resulting from this investigation justify his conclusion that they invariably lead to the conviction that the selection procedures did not offer the required guarantees to ensure a just and fair process and an equal, level playing field for all eligible candidates. The process was, from the outset, tainted with undue external influence that seriously prejudiced the essential requisites of transparency and observance of the rules of due process required to dispel any perception of improper discrimination.”

“It was a process tailor-made to achieve a pre-ordained result. As such it improperly discriminated in favour of the chosen applicants. It also improperly discriminated against the complainants and indeed against all other eligible candidates in so far as they were not allowed to compete on an equal, level playing field with the chosen candidates.”

“It is not the purpose of this investigation to determine whether the chosen candidates were qualified for the rank to which they were promoted; nor to verify whether other candidates were more or less qualified than them. That assessment can only result from a selection process that is fair and just, open and transparent and conducted impartially by a qualified selection board, free from undue pressure and improper interference,” the Ombudsman said.

“The Ombudsman can at this stage only conclude that the selection process was vitiated and that the complainants and indeed all other eligible candidates suffered an injustice as a result of an act of maladministration.”

The Ombudsman recommended a radical review and revision of the promotion process, which should guarantee a fair and just process for all eligible candidates and be as far as possible removed from outside interference or influence “aimed solely at identifying the best person for the advertised post as required by the Force, in the national interest and in the defence of the country’s security.”

In a letter sent to the Ombudsman in September, Home Affairs Minister Michael Farrugia said that he disagreed with the majority of contents of the report, but would “discuss them at length internally and take them into consideration for future processes.”

The Ombudsman also sent his recommendations to the Office of the Prime Minister but had, by November of last year, not received any feedback.

The Ombudsman’s Final Opinion and all related correspondence has now been tabled in Parliament. 

 

PN statement

In a statement, the Nationalist Party said the Ombudsman had confirmed that the process was vitiated to serve the needs of the Labour Party.

When the Opposition had spoken out against this abuse, the government had tried to ridicule it, but the PN has now been proven right, the party said.

The PN said it now expected the Prime Minister to shoulder the political responsibility, adding that it would be a shield for those who suffer from injustices.

 

 

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