Friday

24th Feb 2017

Interview

EU anti-fraud chief: We can improve Brussels' image

  • Olaf chief Giovanni Kessler urged EU institutions not to stand in his way (Photo: OSCE)

The head of the EU anti-fraud office, Giovanni Kessler, has said he can improve Brussels' reputation so long as the work of his institution is not obstructed.

Set up in 1999 after a corruption scandal which led to the en-masse resignation of the European Commission, Olaf is supposed to investigate in cases where EU money is suspected of being defrauded. It is also tasked with looking into the "serious misbehaviour" of EU institutions' employees.

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"Over the years Olaf has developed a bigger capacity and know-how. We gained the confidence not only of the institutions themselves, but also by the people in general who come to us, as well as police, national authorities or private companies,"

Kessler told this website.

He added: "It was a good message sent in 1999, that institutions are transparent, clean and subject to independent investigations. The institutions should be proud of this. Olaf is a resource, not a problem-maker. It is better to say 'we discovered it and we are doing something about it,' rather than try to cover it up."

Kessler, an Italian politician who took up the job as Olaf director general in February 2011, recently re-organised the 500-people strong bureau to focus more on investigations, with one unit out of eight now devoted to internal EU probes.

"According to an inter-institutional agreement dating back to 1999, Olaf also has a mandate to investigate all members and staff of all EU institutions also when there is serious misconduct likely to end in disciplinary or criminal proceedings, even if there is no fraud and corruption affecting the EU financial interests - which is our main mandate," he explained.

Back in March last year, just three months into the job, he hit an inter-institutional wall when his staff wanted to raid the offices of four MEPs exposed by the Sunday Times as having accepted bribes for legislative amendments.

The European Parliament said MEPs had immunity and that their offices cannot be raided. Olaf still carried out the investigation and cleared one Spanish MEP, while information on the other three - an Austrian, a Romanian and a Slovene - was forwarded to national prosecutors and may lead to corruption trials at home.

"What happened with the inquiry into the four MEPs is that the parliament did not understand this [the Olaf mandate]. I think they were caught by surprise. At a certain point they must have gotten really nervous, thinking that now Olaf will rush into all their offices," Kessler recalled.

"With all the due prudence, and I understand that MEPs are not staff, they have a political mandate for which they are responsible to their voters, but when a line is crossed, they are responsible in front of the law and someone has to investigate."

After speaking with the parliament's new president, German socialist Martin Schulz, Kessler said he is "very much reassured" that "no-one stands above the law."

Taken to court

Relations between Olaf and the Luxembourg-based European Court of Auditors are less amiable, however.

The court's secretary general, Eduardo Ruiz Garcia, last year took Olaf to court for making him the target of one of its inquiries. The court in February dismissed Garcia's claim to damages and to suspend the Olaf investigation.

"We did our job, which is to investigate," Kessler said.

"We received an allegation of wrongdoings in the Court of Auditors in the context of a security tender from a private company, so we started an investigation. As simple as that, according to the rules. We closed it in March with recommendations addressed to the Court of Auditors for disciplinary measures and to the Luxembourg judicial authorities."

He added: "It was their right to go to court. We didn't complain or make statements about it. We did our report, because we work for the institutions. Now it's up to them to follow up on the recommendations."

The court has so far not taken any action against Garcia and Olaf is powerless in this regard, but it can report to the European Parliament and its own supervisory committee on how its recommendations are being followed up.

On the use of public money to defend Garcia in court, as reported by this website, Kessler said: "I got the confirmation on that in reading your article."

Asked whether there will be another investigation into this aspect of the case, the Olaf chief replied: "No comment."

"In our history we've done investigations on Eurojust, on Europol, on many other institutions. And now we had one on the Court of Auditors. It happens. I don't want to dramatise it, neither to play it down. It's our job and we do it with professionalism and discretion. We don't leak, we don't play a fanfare," he said.

The spokeswoman of the Court of Auditors has remarked that the Garcia case came at the same time as a court probe into Olaf, alluding to some kind of skullduggery.

For his part, Kessler noted: "We started the investigation upon an allegation. We didn't say: 'Oh my goodness, the timing is wrong, why should we create problems by starting an investigation.' We work in full independence."

He added: "Their report was, by the way, very useful for Olaf. We have implemented their recommendations from 1 February and in the re-organisation of Olaf many changes we have done have their origin in their report."

Romanian MEP charged with defrauding over €400,000

Adrian Severin, a Romanian MEP accused of having taken bribes from journalists posing as lobbyists, has been charged with siphoning €436,000 from the EU budget to bogus consultancy firms in Romania. He is still in office, claiming his innocence.

Analysis

Why Romania erupted in protest

Current anger over corruption laws can be traced back to a night-club fire in 2015, when many died because of lax safety standards. Romanians then realised that corruption can kill.

French police raid Le Pen's party office

Officers raid the National Front headquarters near Paris over allegations that leader Marine Le Pen used fake EU parliament contracts to pay her personal staff.

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