Green members of the European Parliament have accused the EU’s anti-fraud office, OLAF, of using wire taping and other “illegal means” in the investigation which led to the resignation of John Dalli as health commissioner. Senior MEPs called for the OLAF director to resign.
The so-called ‘Dalligate’ investigation took an unexpected turn on Thursday (21 March) when the OLAF stood accused of using illegal means in its enquiry.
Dalli was forced to resign as EU health commissioner in October 2012 after an investigation connected him with an attempt to influence EU tobacco legislation.
But Green members of the European Parliament said that the accusations against Dalli were unfounded and that a meeting that allegedly took place between the former commissioner and a Swedish tobacco manufacturer never happened.
Johan Gabrielsson, an official from the snus company Swedish Match, told Green MEP José Bové that Dalli had never held a meeting with tobacco lobbyist Gayle Kimberley, contradicting the OLAF inquiry. The conversation was recorded by Bové.
Gabrielsson said he was pressured by OLAF to conceal his knowledge that the meeting never took place when he appeared before Parliament on 9 January.
Bové, a Green MEP from France, made the revelation during a Parliament press briefing on Thursday (21 March) after meeting with Gabrielsson and a spokesperson from Swedish Match's communications department in Brussels for 81 minutes a day before.
"I know that she [Kimberley] wasn’t in the second meeting, but that I found out when OLAF told me," Gabrielsson said on a tape, which Bové played at the press briefing.
"The story I was told when I came to Malta on the 13th of February , when I talked to Gayle, and also when she called me on the 10th of February, she lied to me. She said that she had been in the meeting," Gabrielsson stated.
In December 2012, Dalli filed a complaint for defamation against Swedish Match in the Court of First Instance in Belgium. Dalli has denied any impropriety and said he was wrongly forced to resign.
Gabrielsson's company, Swedish Match, hired Kimberley for €5,000 to try to meet with the health commissioner and lift an EU ban on snus, a smokeless tobacco product that is popular in Sweden but cannot be exported to the rest of the EU.
In his revision of the Tobacco Products Directive, Dalli had maintained the ban on snus tobacco.
"We were just sure that [the Commission’s] DG Sanco was running the whole process themselves and that Dalli didn't even know what kind of product snus is," Gabrielsson revealed.
"I called her [Kimberley] because she is in Malta. I just came up with the idea of calling her and ask what she thinks, it was completely innocent. 'Do you have any information, do you know what we could do?'. We had tried to get meetings with Dalli, but had been ignored. The big companies however, as far as I know, met with Dalli and his cabinet," Gabrielsson said.
Kimberley did meet Dalli during one meeting, but according to Gabrielsson she was not allowed into a second one where the Maltese entrepreneur Silvio Zammit was present.
Zammit is alleged to have asked snuff giant Swedish Match for €60 million in return for persuading Dalli to change the EU’s draft tobacco directive.
Zammit had also told Gabrielsson that Kimberley was present at the meeting.
OLAF says ‘stick to the story’
The public scandal that ensued led to Dalli’s resignation on the 16th of October.
Ahead of a meeting in the European Parliament on 9 January, Gabrielsson said he was being told by OLAF to stick to his previous statements even though he knew that Dalli's second meeting with Kimberley had never happened.
On tape Gabrielsson said: “At that time we had been told to keep, by OLAF, that there is an investigation going on in Malta, so tell what you have said to us and what your version is because there is a Maltese criminal investigation and that should not be disturbed."
"They [OLAF] said it like this; we are not going to give you any orders because you have done nothing wrong in this, but we have done an investigation. There are Maltese investigations. It would be preferable that this is not disturbed and it would definitely not help that this comes out. The Maltese police also told me that," Gabrielsson continued.
Bové said that, in line with the World Health Organization's transparency rules, he had put a tape recorder on the table.
Call for OLAF director to resign
Later Thursday, the coordinator of the European People's Party in the Parliament's budgetary control committee, Inge Gräßle, called for the resignation of OLAF's director general Giovanni Kessler.
On Tuesday, the OLAF supervisory committee pointed out to Parliament severe breaches of fundamental rights – the recording of a telephone conversation and its evaluation without a judicial authorisation, as well as the instigation of third persons to produce such records of telephone conversations.
“Now the instigation of a third party, in this case Swedish Match, to make a false statement in front of Parliament adds to this record,” Gräßle said in a statement.
OLAF reacted to EURACTIV's story by denying having "attempted to influence the evidence given by any witness". All evidence was collected lawfully, OLAF said. OLAF also denied having conducted wiretapping or illegally recorded telephone conversations.
"OLAF regrets that selected items of information from confidential reports have been disclosed inaccurately, out of context and in a distorted fashion in an attempt to create a misleading impression of the facts which are currently sub judice," EU's anti-fraud office said.
MEP from the Green group Bart Staes said at the press briefing:
"Last Wednesday, we had a meeting in the Budget Control Committee where a member of the Supervisory Committee of OLAF came. Mr. Herbert Bösch, former president of the Budget Control Committee, explained that the Supervisory Committee is working on a document that evaluates OLAF's work. Not only during Dalligate, but during many cases."
"Mr. Bösch warned us. He said, we have information that OLAF uses illegal means to investigate. He explicitly said that illegal wire taping has been used in some inquiries. He told us that interviews of people, being it witnesses, people that have been accused of something, are being taped without their knowledge. He said that the director general of OLAF himself participates in the investigations."
José Bové, Green MEP and vice-chair of the Parliament's agriculture committee said in a statement:
"The credibility of the EU institutions is at stake. The Dalligate controversy raises questions both about the murky role of tobacco industry lobbying in the context of the Tobacco Directive, but also the conduct of the EU institutions. It is not only necessary and in the public interest to get to the bottom of the Dalligate controversy, ensuring any misconduct is sanctioned, it is also crucial that we draw lessons from the case and reform our institutions and the applicable ethics and transparency rules to prevent further abuses."
John Dalli resigned as Commissioner for Health and Consumer Policy in October 2012 following a report from the EU's anti-fraud office (OLAF).
The report claimed that a Maltese lobbyist had approached the tobacco producer Swedish Match and proposed to make use of his contacts with Dalli to fix the EU export ban on smoking tobacco (snus).
The report claimed that, while Dalli was not involved, he knew what was going on.