Monday

3rd Aug 2020

MEPs trade fraud allegations over assistants

  • National Front MEP and leader Marine Le Pen - Olaf is investigating if National Front MEPs have paid assistant salaries to people whose tasks are not related to European Parliament work (Photo: europarl.europa.eu)

Allegations that French far-right right MEPs have breached European Parliament rules on hiring assistants have triggered “tit-for-tat” accusations among other MEPs, the director of the EU's anti-fraud agency told journalists on Tuesday (2 June).

Giovanni Kessler likened it to the wave of accusations among German politicians that followed a 2011 plagiarism scandal involving the then defence minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg.

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  • Since 2010, Olaf is receiving an increasing number of allegations ("incoming information"). (Photo: European Anti-Fraud Office)

“They started accusing each other ... This is what is happening in the parliament now”, said Kessler, who is director general of the European Anti-Fraud Office (Olaf).

Kessler indicated the attitude of MEPs was defensive summing it up as: “You are accusing me to have assistants which are not exactly in line with regulation? What about your assistant?”.

Olaf is investigating if National Front MEPs have paid assistant salaries to people whose tasks were not related to European Parliament work.

But Olaf is also investigating allegations "on other assistants, because this has triggered tit-for-tat. Many. Now it is becoming popular.”

Kessler did “not want to comment further” on the issue, but did say that “the rules on assistants in the parliament are not the most crystal clear we have ever seen … which gives a lot of space for allegations and also possibly some people playing with it”.

European parliament president Martin Schulz made the allegations public last March.

Although Kessler did not directly comment on Schulz, he criticised those who file a complaint with Olaf and then tell the press, something Kessler "regrets" because it impedes the investigation.

Annual report

The Italian official made his remarks at a press conference to present his office's annual report.

The report showed that Olaf opened 234 investigations in 2014, and closed 250 investigations. Both figures are slightly above the annual average of the past ten years.

But Olaf, whose staff of 421 is 19 fewer than a year earlier says it is unable to open more investigations.

“We are at the top of our capacity. Our forces are stretched”, said Kessler.

In 2014, the agency received 1,417 new allegations of fraud or corruption involving EU funds or staff. The number of complaints filed with Olaf has steadily risen in recent years from 975 in 2010.

“Is there more fraud, more corruption than in the past? We do not think so”, said Kessler, who noted that the increase in allegations probably stems from “increased awareness” of the issue and readiness to report possible fraud.

Last year, Olaf also dismissed 1,067 allegations, up from 961 in 2013.

The largest portion of allegations come from private sources. These range from “companies which report a request of a bribe that they might have received … [to] the anonymous who says: 'I didn't win the lottery, this is corruption'”, said Kessler.

Information from public sources (most often EU institutions) is “quality-wise better, more substantial”.

As in preceding years, the largest number of allegations are about possible misuse of the EU's structural funds.

Of the 156 closed investigations into the use of EU funds managed at national or regional level, the largest portion (36) concerned Romania, followed by Hungary (13), and Bulgaria (11).

But that does not mean that those countries “are the most fraudulent”, noted Kessler, because the figures also include cases where no fraud or corruption was detected.

He also added that it is becoming increasingly difficult to “put everything in the national boxes”

“More and more these kind of crimes are of a transnational nature.”

Olaf itself cannot fine or convict anyone, but only give national authorities a recommendation.

In the past seven years, 33 percent of Olaf's recommendations have led to an indictment, 30 percent were dismissed. The rest of them has not yet been processed.

In 2014, €206.5 million was recovered for the EU budget. At the end of the year, there were still 474 investigations ongoing.

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