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19th Jan 2020

EU anti-fraud chief should be investigated, says MEP

  • Giovanni Kessler become Olaf chief in 2010 (Photo: OSCE)

The chair of the European Parliament budgetary control committee has renewed calls to lift the immunity of EU's anti-fraud chief Giovanni Kessler and allow an investigation by Belgian prosecutors into claims that he illegally recorded a phone conversation in 2012.

Kessler, who heads the EU's anti-fraud office Olaf, could face criminal prosecution for secretly recording a phone call during an investigation that led to EU commissioner for health John Dalli leaving his post.

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Belgian authorities demanded the European Commission lift his immunity in December 2014, but officials at the EU executive have yet to act.

The commission has refused to respond to questions on the delay or rumours that it has already lifted Kessler's immunity.

"Due to legal reasons I'm not allowed to say a word on this," commission spokesman Margaritis Schinas told journalists on Thursday.

Kessler is granted immunity in his role as Olaf chief. He is also entitled to bring "an action against his institution [EU commission] before the Court of Justice" if he considers that measures taken by the commission call into question his independence.

But the EP budgetary control committee chair, German center-right MEP Ingeborg Graessle, said on Wednesday (9 March) that the Belgian police should be allowed to investigate and put an end to the dispute.

"This is about the Belgian prosecution's right and possibility to look into possible misconduct during the investigation of the Dalli case," she said in a statement.

"An investigation is the only way that the Olaf director-general can clear himself of the suspicion of having illegally recorded phone calls, which is a crime in almost all member states."

Graessle has previously accused him of breaking Belgian law and violating article 7 of the EU's charter of fundamental rights over the alleged wire-tapping.

Kessler told this website in October 2014 that the accusations were baseless.

"Olaf did not - and does not - carry out any telephone tapping,” he said.

Olaf does not deny recording a conversation without the consent of the witness but says this does not amount to wire-tapping.

His office explained that “wire-tapping” is when you put a bug in a suspect’s phone, not when you record a call without the suspect’s knowledge.

Belgian federal police want to investigate this claim, but cannot because of his immunity.

The dispute flared up after it was revealed that Kessler had helped to record a phone call in July 2012 between a lobbyist for smokeless tobacco products and Maltese restaurant owner Silvio Zammit.

The restaurateur was suspected of trying to extract millions of euros in return for influencing Dalli, who is also Maltese, to lift an EU-wide sale ban on mouth tobacco known as snus.

The lobbyist was a witness in the case and called Zammit on her personal phone while at the Olaf office in Brussels.

Zammit is currently on trial in Malta on charges of bribery and peddling influence.

Dalli claimed he had been forced out because of his strong anti-tobacco stance. He took his case to the ECJ and lost.

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