Former Slovenian MEP Zoran Thaler was sentenced last week to two and a half years in prison by a Ljubljana court following his involvement in the “cash-for-amendments” scandal from 2011, a journalistic spoof aimed at “testing MEPs’ ethics”.
Zoran Thaler, who is also a former foreign affairs minister of Slovenia, reached a plea bargain last month with the prosecution in his country in a corruption case which forced him to step down from his job as MEP in 2011.
Thaler will pay €15,000 that will be donated to Ljubljana’s children's hospital and is sentenced to a two and half years prison term, which he will serve during the weekends.
The “cash-for-laws” scandal broke three years ago when Sunday Times journalists posing as lobbyists secretly filmed four MEPs negotiating a deal to table amendments in the EU Parliament in exchange for money.
Since then, only two of the incriminated lawmakers has stepped down, Austria’s Ernst Stasser and Thaler. Stasser was also sentenced to prison, while the two others, Romania’s Adrian Severin and Spanish MEP Pablo Zalba Bidegain, have kept their seats in the Parliament.
Commenting on the sentence, Zoran Thaler told Slovenian media that he had been “pushed into Murdoch’s reality TV show involuntarily and now I am exiting it voluntarily”.
The former minister was cleared of corruption suspicions by the European Commission’s Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF) in 2012.
“[OLAF] found no evidence to support suspicion of wrongdoing of former MEP Zoran Thaler, following his exposure by the Sunday Times in March 2011 in the cash-for-laws scandal … but the European Parliament "refused to provide the necessary support during the investigation".
The conclusions of the case, which OLAF closed on 22 December, “are thus based on limited information”, the office said.
In the case of MEP Pablo Zalba Bidegain, OLAF has sent a letter dated 19 May 2011, saying that "based on the findings of the investigation, the OLAF Director General has closed the case".
The Sunday Times belongs to controversial media mogul Ruport Murdoch’s corporation, NewsCorp, and has unveiled other similar bribery scandals in the UK.
However, the cash for amendments story was not met with unanimous acclaim in the journalistic community. The veteran French Brussels correspondent Jean Quatremer harshly criticised the Sunday Times’ method in his influential blog, “Les Coulisses de Bruxelles”.
On 25 March 2011, Quatremer wrote: “In order to set up those parliamentarians (or anyone else), these 'journalists' did not hesitate to violate the law.
“Journalists are not policemen,” he wrote, “and in this case they are guilty of corruption or attempt of corruption … I don’t like these methods where journalists play the role of the policeman and the judge without respecting the rights of the defence.”
“Provoking information is not information, it’s manipulation,” Quatremer concluded. He did not seek to justify the MEPs’ conduct in the cash for influence scandal.
The secretary general of the European Federation of Journalists, Ricardo Gutiérrez, told EURACTIV that the "basic deontological principle is for journalists to not conceal their identity, although there are exceptions".
“Undercover journalism is tolerated if a real social issue is at stake (human rights violations, etc.), if the risks for the journalist are reasonable and if the method is approved by the editor-in-chief.
"This does however not justify causing offence. And being a briber is an offence. [Like] Jean Quatremer, I would tend to condemn such practice. If the journalist becomes an offender, how will we make ourselves respected?” Gutiérrez said.