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19th Jan 2019

Tobacco lawyer steps down from EU ethics panel

  • Michel Petite (pictured left) works for Philip Morris at the Clifford Chance law firm (Photo: ec.europa.eu)

A corporate lawyer with Big Tobacco clients stepped down as head of the European Commission’s ad hoc ethics committee last week, but he says it has nothing to do with conflict of interest.

“I had informed the commission [of the resignation] in advance and this has been done in perfect agreement,” Michel Petite, who works for the Clifford Chance law firm, told this website from Paris on Friday (20 December).

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The three-member ethical committee monitors departing commissioners who are looking for new jobs.

Set up in 2003, the idea is to make sure outgoing commissioners do not end up working on the same topics they legislated on.

EU ombudsman Emily O’Reilly upped the pressure for the committee to replace Petite after a handful of pro-transparency NGOs filed a complaint in February.

Petite headed the commission’s legal services in 2008, but then landed a job at Clifford Chance, where he specialises in competition law. Its clients include US tobacco firm Philip Morris.

O’Reilly said Petite’s position as a retired high-ranking commission official put the credibility of the committee at stake.

“It was difficult to argue that the client-related activities of the previous head did not constitute a potential conflict of interest,” she said in a statement.

But Petite says it has nothing to do with O’Reilly and with the NGOs’ complaint.

He told EUobserver he stepped down because of his workload.

“The prospect is that next year is the end of the [current] commission and that this committee will suddenly have a lot of work,” he said.

Petite, who was nominated for a "Worst EU Lobbying Award" by transparency campaigners in 2008, added that he does not do lobbying.

“I am not a lobbyist. I’m a lawyer in a law firm,” he said.

But pro-transparency campaigners take issue with the fact that his name cropped up in a tobacco lobbying scandal which led to the former Maltese commissioner for health, John Dalli, losing his post in October last year.

Swedish tobacco firm Swedish Match had accused a close Dalli associate of soliciting a large bribe in an effort to water down the commissioner’s draft bill on tobacco products.

It was Petite who linked Swedish Match to the commission’s secretariat general, Catherine Day.

“When I was contacted by a client of my law firm, I simply turned them to the right level of the commission, namely the secretariat general for a follow-up of what they had encountered,” he said.

Petite said his role in the Dalli affair ended there and that he had no other input on the issues which led to the commissioner’s departure in October 2012.

Petite took up his post as head of the ethics panel two months later.

The commission, for its part, said Petite stepped down on his own accord.

Former commission director general Nicolas van der Pas is set to become the committee’s new head.

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