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20th Jan 2019

Reform proposal to limit powers of EU anti-fraud staff

  • Olaf investigators will need special permission to probe a commissioner's office under new rules (Photo: kukkurovaca)

The EU’s anti-fraud office Olaf will have to ask permission to enter the offices of elected and appointed members of the EU institutions under proposals by the European Commission.

“For all the other staff, Olaf will continue to work as it has up to now,” European Commission spokesperson Emer Traynor told this website on Wednesday (18 June).

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The proposal tabled earlier this month by the Brussels executive aims to set up a new post to make sure Olaf investigators follow procedural rules.

The commission wants to create a so-called Controller of Procedural Guarantees.

Olaf investigators will first have to ask the Controller's permission before entering the office of a European Commissioner, an MEP, or a minister at the EU Council.

Everyone else, including staff and personnel, are not protected under the additional safeguard.

“The reason we have included that was to basically align more the Olaf practices with what is normal practice at national level when there are criminal investigations,” said Traynor.

Traynor describes the controller as a “quasi-judicial clearance of particular investigative measures that Olaf wants to employ when it comes to people who hold office.”

Olaf will have no recourse or appeal should it disagree with the controller when it comes to accessing an office in case it suspects fraud or corruption.

Investigators who want access to someone’s office, under current rules, only need permission from Olaf’s director general.

To get into an MEPs office, they need prior permission from the parliament's president, according to the EP and despite Olaf objections. The anti-fraud office says it has the right of immediate and unannounced access to any relevant information, including information in databases, held by the institutions, bodies, offices and agencies, and to their premises.

Meanwhile, Olaf last year adopted new guidelines for all staff when they conduct investigations. They also set up a special unit tasked to check whether investigators have complied with the rules.

The commission's proposal is the last remaining part of a broader overhaul of the office initiated eight years ago.

Indications suggest some MEPs are already sceptical of the commission’s latest idea.

Last week, German centre-right deputy Ingeborg Graessle said the reform needs substantial revision because it risks stripping Olaf of its independence.

“This would be the end of Olaf as an independent body,” she said.

Green MEP Bart Staes, who along with Graessle has clashed with Olaf in the past, says he is not against the idea of the Controller but it needs “a lot of fine tuning and better guarantees for his independence.”

The commission, for its part, says the controller and accompanying staff would be subject to its staff regulations and rules of professional ethics.

“There is no more risk here than there is of a national judge being compromised,” said Traynor.

She noted Olaf is already receptive to the idea in part because it will provide greater legal clarity should the suspect being probed object.

The new post will also allow people under investigation to file complaints against Olaf and its director-general.

Most of the 25 complaints against the office between 2011 and 2013 were filed with the EU ombudsman.

The person to head the post would be appointed through an inter-institutional procedure involving the commission, parliament, and member states.

The position is part-time with a non-renewable five-year mandate.

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