Surgeon warns of foul play
PSC ‘knew about selection board issues’
A top surgeon who chaired three disbanded selection boards had warned the Public Service Commission of potential foul play in the selection processes for three medical consultancy posts.
The PSC had previously said the boards were disbanded after members collectively disclaimed responsibility for having nominated ineligible candidates to the posts.
But the chair of all three boards, Godfrey Laferla, has told The Times that the boards only disclaimed responsibility after they discovered that one of the candidates interviewed could have potentially seen – and amended – calls for applications before they were issued.
Prof. Laferla wrote to the PSC in June 2011 to warn them that a candidate his boards had interviewed also sat on the council of the Medical Association of Malta, which vetted the calls for applications before they were issued.
The calls were subsequently amended by the MAM “in a way that appeared to favour local candidates”, Prof Laferla claimed.
This was strenuously denied by MAM president Martin Balzan, who insisted the calls had not been amended.
“Calls for applications are public documents – the eligibility criteria for all posts are the same for all EU citizens. The calls were approved by the MAM council, in which the candidate in question played a very minor role,” Dr Balzan said when contacted.
Prof. Laferla said that although the candidate who sat on the MAM council had not succeeded in getting any of the consultancy posts, concerns about potential irregularities had cast a shadow over the process in the boards’ minds.
“The boards, having this information, cannot and will not bear responsibility for potential injustices. The boards are therefore not prepared to sanction... any outcomes related to these matters and are therefore withdrawing all of their signatures from the respective reports,” Prof. Laferla told the PSC in the letter, dated June 16, 2011.
“It was another candidate who brought the issue to my attention. By then, we had already carried out the selection process.
“I immediately met with the PSC and the Health Department’s director-general, who admitted that he had passed the call for applications to the president of MAM before issuing them,” Prof. Laferla told The Times.
The prominent surgeon was eager to set the record straight.
“We withdrew our signatures not because the PSC queried the final selections, but because we discovered this very clear potential conflict of interest by one of the candidates.
“I and fellow board members have been vilified and misrepresented. The PSC has made it look as though we disclaimed responsibility out of some sense of cowardice, when in fact we were the ones who first flagged this issue.”
A PSC spokesman declined to discuss Prof. Laferla’s claims, saying simply that the Commission stood by its report, decisions and statements concerning the eligibility of candidates to consultancy posts.
The Health Ministry confirmed calls for applications in question had been discussed with the MAM before they were issued to ensure they were in line with union agreements.
Neither of the two said whether any procedures had been amended to prevent any future such conflicts of interest from arising.
Prof. Laferla’s selection boards, as well as one chaired by ophthalmologist Thomas Fenech, were staunchly criticised by the PSC for having nominated ineligible candidates for consultancy posts.
The PSC was prompted to investigate when the MAM complained about the outcome of their selection boards.
“There were some 30 consultancy posts up for grabs last year, and none of the other selection boards had any problem interpreting candidates’ eligibility,” Dr Balzan remarked.
Both Prof. Laferla and Mr Fenech have insisted the ineligible candidates were the most clinically qualified and were picked in good faith, with their ineligibility hinging on administrative, rather than clinical, issues.
The PSC has said that it is the selection boards’ job, not theirs, to vet candidates’ administrative eligibility – something that left Mr Fenech incredulous.
“The current system puts us in a very uncomfortable situation. What if I disqualify a candidate on administrative grounds incorrectly? Who carries the can for that?”
Prof. Laferla pointed out he had asked the PSC for help in assessing the administrative eligibility of candidates in November 2010.
“A human resources expert from the health department was assigned to us to help, but even then we had problems working through the eligibility clauses,” he said.
Mr Fenech argued that it would make more sense for the PSC to assume responsibility for vetting administrative eligibility.
“Right now, we decide everything, even though we’re only qualified to assess someone’s clinical ability. The PSC are the administrative experts. We’re the medical experts. It would be more efficient, not to mention transparent, if we split responsibility according to our competences.”
Splitting responsibility would have prevented such mix-ups from ever occurring, Mr Fenech went on to say.
“It’s not been a pleasant experience. I’ve cleared the air with all the other board members, and I can hand-on-heart say that we did nothing wrong. The candidate we selected was the best from a medical point of view. We acted in good faith.”