Institutional Affairs

Italian prankster spams EU lobbyist register

13.02.09 @ 09:25

  1. By Leigh Phillips

BRUSSELS - The European Commission's voluntary online register of Brussels lobbyists has been hijacked by a mysterious mischief-maker who registered a string of seemingly fake companies.

  • Venetian carnival masks (Photo: wikipedia)

Foremost amongst them is the "Fares Bank Ltd" of Harley Street, London, which is supposed to have spent €250 million on lobbying EU institutions in 2008, immediately making it the biggest spender in the Register of Interest Representatives, a database of public relations companies, law firms, NGOs and think-tanks that attempt to influence European legislation.

The vast sum looks all the more outlandish when put next to the two largest real lobbying outfits in Brussels, Hill & Knowlton, which had a turnover of about €8 million and Burston Marsteller on €7 million.

The Fares Bank entry states, in comically poor English, that it worked on banking legislation. "Fares Bank's activity is explicated in the international field and proposes itself as strategic partner of trades, giving professionality [sic], experience, competence, venture capitals."

The company's London address is the same as Virtual Serviced Offices, a private post office box in London "available on very flexible terms for a minimum period of one week." Its homepage is skeletally bare.

The supposed Fares Bank director, Willy Bergher, gets just three Google hits - the commission registry, a Romanian literary review and the "Financial Insurance Services European Companies Union," which was "conceived by an idea of one of the greatest experts of world financial analysts engineer Willy Bergher."

A quick internet search reveals however that the Fares Bank website is registered to a Gennaro Ruggiero of Prato, Italy. Mr Ruggiero, or "Dr Ruggiero," as he sometimes styles himself, has a much more prolific web presence than his ostensible associate.

The Italian character is also connected to an extended chain of likely ghost organisations on the internet, such as the "International Association of Freelance Journalists," the "Professional Order of Qualified Euro-advisors and Euro-planners" and the "Observatory on Tourism in the European Islands," according to Erik Wesselius of pro-transparency NGO Corporate Europe Observatory.

Mr Ruggiero and another individual, Giuseppe Catapano, are also on the European Parliament's lobbying register as part of another virtual organisation, the "Observatory of the European Parliament and the Council of Europe."

Significantly, signing up to the parliament's database offers registrants permanent access badges to the European Parliament buildings, where security questions were raised after a bank robbery in broad daylight on Thursday (12 January).

Mr Wesselius, who discovered the Ruggiero network by chance while trawling through the commission's register, found at least 13 of the Italian's virtual organisations have signed up.

"It's just astonishing," he told the EUobserver. "I don't know whether this guy is deliberately fiddling with the commission's registry, or has delusions of grandeur that he is some international banking genius or what."

"But this seems to suggest that there is no regular oversight of the lobbying registry by the commission at all."

Describing a process where the registry has in effect been turned into depository of spam from a fantasist, Mr Wesselius said the commission system has been seriously compromised.

"If any old fool can sign up to the registry and post whatever they want, without somebody seriously monitoring the data that's in there, what is the registry worth?" Mr Wesselius added.

"How do we know that Hill & Knowlton also has actually spent €8 million? Who's checking up on it? How can anybody trust any of the data the registry contains?"

European Commission spokeswoman Valerie Rampi said that two complaints about the fake entries had been received in the past week.

"Information from the countries concerned is being gathered and if it is found that there has been an abuse of the code of conduct attached to the registry, there are sanction mechanisms we have at our disposal," she said, adding that such sanctions could involve the relevant party being struck from the registry.

A commission official said he did not know how many other false registrations there are in the system.

"We don't check all the entries, obviously," he said. "The information comes from the registrant and we put the burden for registering on them. It's their responsibility. The European Commission does not endorse or verify what goes in."