March 23, 2011 2:47 pm

Fraud investigators barred from MEPs’ offices

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European anti-fraud investigators were blocked from searching the offices of the three members of parliament accused of taking money from fake lobbyists to introduce amendments to European Union regulations, it has emerged.

Officials from OLAF, the European Commission’s fraud fighters, on Tuesday were denied access to the offices of Ernst Strasser, Zoran Thaler and Adrian Severin, the three subjects of a sting set up by The Sunday Times newspaper.

A statement on the matter is expected on Wednesday from Jerzy Buzek, the European Parliament president, at a plenary session. At the same time, the resignations of Mr Strasser and Mr Thaler will take effect. Mr Severin remains an MEP but has been excluded from the centre-left political grouping. All have denied wrongdoing.

Parliamentary sources have told the Financial Times that OLAF staff were allowed into the parliament building on Tuesday, but were refused access to the offices of any of the MEPs.

A source said the request was denied after questions were raised as to whom should be responsible for holding the investigation, between OLAF and national authorities.

The investigation follows a report in The Sunday Times that claimed the three MEPs had agreed to work for a fake lobbying company in return for a fee and had subsequently put forward amendments to key draft legislation in the European Parliament.

The newspaper said two of the amendments went on to appear in official parliamentary documents, exactly as instructed by the fake lobbying company.

One amendment was intended to water down the Deposit Guarantee Schemes directive, a key financial reform designed to protect customers’ deposits in the event of another banking collapse.

Investigations into fraud carried out by parliamentarians have set up a clash between two principles of law: the freedom of the police to investigate serious charges, versus the freedom of parliament to do its work unimpeded.

The parliament’s legal apparatus is currently studying who should be granted access to the offices of the departed MEPs, if anyone. OLAF has sought its own legal advice, one person close to the organisation said.

Brussels-based OLAF has come under fire in recent years for not doing enough to fight fraud in the EU budget. Its defenders have cited a lack of resources and complex institutional arrangements as root causes of its difficulties. Armed with a new director-general since February, it is due to be overhauled by the European Commission this year.

The parliament declined to comment ahead of Mr Buzek’s statement. OLAF confirmed it was holding an investigation, but also declined to comment. Mr Strasser and Mr Thaler could not be reached for comment. Mr Severin did not respond to calls for comment.

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