Former Herrera clients in key ministry roles

Both men served as army officers

Environment Minister Jose' Herrera.

Environment Minister Jose' Herrera.

Two former army officers, who in the past used the legal services of Josè Herrera or his office, are occupying key positions at the Environment Ministry he now heads.

Retired Armed Forces of Malta Major Pierre Vassallo – whom the minister, as lawyer, had represented in an unsuccessful court case against the prime minister and the commander under a Nationalist administration claiming he was denied promotion – is Dr Herrera’s chief of staff at the Environment Ministry.

Retired lieutenant colonel Mario Schembri, who had filed the court case mentioned above jointly with Major Vassallo, was on Monday appointed by the Environment Ministry as the new compliance and enforcement director at the Environment and Resources Authority. The Nationalist Party’s environment spokesman, Jason Azzopardi, accused Dr Herrera of nepotism, saying he rewarded his private office’s clients with lucrative government jobs.

He claimed that Lt Col Schembri had not been cleared by the security service, which was why he had not been promoted in the army.

The minister was not aware of the two men’s past- spokesman

According to AFM sources, the two men are “intimate friends”. Research shows they followed similar career paths. They served in the police force in the early 1980s. In 1985, disgraced police commissioner Lawrence Pullicino, who had been imprisoned in connection with the death of a suspect in police custody, had stopped the two from continuing to serve in the force and were both transferred to the Task Force, a unit within the AFM having specific duties.

In the court case filed in 2007, they argued that despite the AFM commander’s recommendation for promotion, the process was stopped after the National Security Authority did not grant them the necessary clearance and claimed they were denied a fair hearing. It resulted during the case they were the only two out of 25 AFM officers not to be cleared by the security service. They appealed but the court threw out their arguments in 2013.

Maj. Vassallo was represented by Dr Herrera and Lt Col Schembri by former Labour Party deputy leader Anġlu Farrugia.

They then took their case to the European Court of Human Rights. At this stage, they were represented by lawyers David Camilleri and Joseph Gatt, both partners in Dr Herrera’s private legal office, Josè A. Herrera & Associates.

When contacted on the latest appointment, an Environment Ministry spokesman said that Lt Col Schembri “was not a client nor a social acquaintance of Dr Herrera”.

He pointed out that Lt Col Schembri’s recruitment was made by an ERA evaluation committee composed of chairman Victor Axiaq, CEO Louise Spiteri and the ministry’s permanent secretary, Joseph Caruana. He insisted the selection was transparent and followed an open call.

When asked, the spokesman said the minister was not aware of the two men’s past and the reasons why they did not obtain security clearance.

The National Security Authority is not bound by law to give an explanation for withholding a security clearance.

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