Europe’s top medicines regulator has accused a former senior legal adviser of a breach of trust in moving to a US law firm this summer without seeking full advance approval.
The news has triggered a fresh debate over a “revolving door” into the private sector used by former EU officials.
Guido Rasi, head of the European Medicines Agency, is to review departure procedures after expressing concern that Vincenzo Salvatore’s move in June to become senior counsel to the European life sciences practice of Sidley Austin left the agency open to allegations of conflict of interest.
In a letter released under a freedom of information request, Mr Rasi wrote to the former adviser of his “dismay” at reading media reports of Mr Salvatore’s new role “and the potential impact on the level of trust of both our external stakeholders and the collective trust and confidence we expect as staff members”.
The agency head said Mr Salvatore had not broken any rules and remained bound by a life-long confidentiality agreement but attached a formal ruling explicitly forbidding him to have any contact with agency staff or attend its hearings for the next two years.
Mr Salvatore previously told the Financial Times that there was no conflict of interest with his new job, nothing prevented lawyers at the agency resuming their previous professional work and the move had been cleared by the agency.
The case raises broader concerns over former European officials and politicians who have quit their public roles to join the private sector, where they are in a position to exploit former knowledge and contacts for the benefit of their new employer.
It comes at a particularly sensitive time for the medicines agency, which has been criticised for similar failures to scrutinise the new private sector jobs of other officials including Thomas Lonngren Mr Rasi’s predecessor.
European parliamentarians have expressed concerns over practices at the agency and in response have yet to approve the finalisation of its accounts from 2010.
“The Salvatore case is particularly damaging to the agency at a time it is trying to persuade MEPs that things have changed,” said Vicky Cann from the Corporate Europe Observatory, a Brussels watchdog that launched the freedom of information request and is lobbying for a “cooling off” period to limit the risks of conflicts involving former officials.
“It’s very difficult to prove conflicts but there is always the potential and it raises questions about why these people are hired,” she said, stressing the European Commission’s reluctance to impose tougher rules more in line with the US federal government.
Mr Salvatore’s case is particularly sensitive because he himself previously signed off on authorisations of departures of other senior agency staff, including Xavier Luria, who has since become a consultant to a biotech company.
“You almost more than any other staff member were fully aware of the difficult challenges facing the agency and with respect to perceptions of conflict of interest and the associated reputational impact,” Mr Rasi wrote.
The agency head told the FT he was considering ways to create an internal “cooling off period” to reduce the potential for conflicts of interest for staff becoming consultants or employees of pharmaceutical companies.
Mr Rasi said he would encourage staff to undertake a full discussion of their future career plans and consider moving them to less sensitive posts in the build-up to their departure.
The agency head stressed that he had limited powers to impose controls on future employment or to penalise those who breached any guarantees on future employment, other than clawing back pension entitlements. But many agency and other EU staff, including Mr Salvatore, are employed on consultancy contracts with no such benefits.