Journalistic spoof traps MEPs in bribery affair


The European Parliament has opened an investigation after a British newspaper reported that three MEPs had accepted offers of up to 100,000 euros per year in exchange for tabling amendments to legislation being passed in the EU assembly.

During the course of an eight-month investigation, journalists from the Sunday Times posing as lobbyists contacted some 60 MEPs to test their ethics.

The reporters wanted to verify allegations that some politicians were prepared "to sell their services" to push through specific amendments to EU legislation in exchange for remuneration, the broadsheet revealed on Sunday (20 March).

Three MEPs took the bait – Austria's Ernst Strasser, Romania's Adrian Severin and Zoran Thaler of Slovenia.

Both Severin and Thaler are former foreign ministers from the socialist family. Strasser is from the centre-right Austrian People's Party and is a former minister of the interior.

The Sunday Times writes that its spoof marks one of the biggest scandals in the 53-year history of the European Parliament.

According to the newspaper, Severin emailed reporters saying, "just to let you know that the amendment desired by you has been tabled in due time," before sending them a 12,000 euro invoice for "consulting services".

The Romanian later insisted he had done nothing that was "illegal or against any normal behaviour we have here".

"I have been offered a consultancy contract, as a member of the council of international experts of the firm Tyler Jones, a fake firm as it turned out," Severin said, speaking to Romanian agency Mediafax.

"It's a legal contract. We have the right to be members of those advisory boards. We are allowed to work as political consultants, our only obligation being not to disclose confidential information," he explained.

Severin also insisted that he had never expected to be paid, and that in any case he had not put forward the amendment which Tyler Jones had requested.

Asked by Mediafax if the report by the Sunday Times that he had asked to be paid 12,000 euros was false, Severin said: "It's not false, but it had been requested for something else […] I provided consultation services and for that I agreed to be paid."

Severin also said he had been attacked for the positions he had taken in the Parliament, which in his words had "disturbed many".

Romanian daily Gandul and various blogs published a video recording made secretly by the Sunday Times of a conversation between their reporter and Severin, in which the MEP agrees to be paid 12,000 euros for helping to pass legal amendments.

AFP quoted Parliament spokesman Jaume Duch as saying that the Parliament had just opened an inquiry into the allegations in order to fully establish the facts.

Ernst Strasser announced his resignation, while Severin said he was contemplating legal action against the Sunday Times.

For his part, Zoran Thaler sent EURACTIV a written statement explaining that he realised immediately that the lobbying firm did not exist and that his further actions were intended to uncover who was behind this attempt to discredit him.

Martin Schulz, leader of the Socialists & Democrats group, is quoted as saying that it was crucial to meet both MEPs "as soon as possible, to hear what they have to say".

"A [newspaper] article is not a court ruling," Schulz said.

German MEP and leader of the European Parliament's Socialists & Democrats group Martin Schulz said in a press release that he would tell Adrian Severin to resign. "If he does not go of his own will, I will take the necessary steps to expel him from our political group. I will seek the approval of our group bureau tomorrow for his expulsion and then ask our full group on Wednesday to take the formal decision," he said.

Schulz added: "I have told Adrian Severin that what he did is incompatible with the values of the Socialists and Democrats. Members of the European Parliament are well paid. Our job is to defend the interests of our voters, not to make money by helping lobbying firms."

UK Liberal Democrat MEP and European Parliament Vice-President Diana Wallis (Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe) said in a statement that she had "now received the substantial dossier of evidence from the Sunday Times which I will now share with the Parliament's services, and which we will now start to review. The Parliament will now begin to establish the facts in detail and I will suggest a first exchange of views in Parliament's Bureau on Wednesday".

"The important thing is for Parliament now to consider the individual cases and the wider implications for the institution," she added.

Slovenian MEP Zoran Thaler (Socialists & Democrats) sent EURACTIV the following written comments:

"Regarding the article in Sunday Times, I would like to deliver the following explanation to the interested public:

1. From the very beginning of the 'immoral offer' in December 2010, I knew that it was manipulation, an attempt to compromise and discredit a member of the European Parliament. Of course, nowadays, it is not difficult to check if a company and/or an individual really exists. Right after my verification, it was clear that the company and the individuals who contacted me did not exist, that they had fictitious names and that they did not want us to meet at 'their' London address.

2. No matter what, I wanted to find out WHO was behind this attempt to discredit my name this time around. In November 2010, I was the target of an unsuccessful attempt to compromise my reputation from Macedonia, saying that I was suspected of having made profit from PR consulting of a Slovenian company to the ex-president of the country and the current leader of the opposition party in Macedonia.

That is why I was very eager to find out who was behind the new attack not long after that, already in December 2010.

In the beginning of March 2011, it finally became clear that it was the Sunday Times and/or someone behind it with its 'undercover' operation (the Sunday Times is otherwise well-known for its open anti-EU editorial policy which it likes to emphasise).

3. The whole time of their attempt to compromise my integrity, I NEVER TOOK the money that was offered to me and I had no intention of doing so in the future. Furthermore, I did not sign the 'contract of cooperation' which was offered to me, nor did I issue an 'invoice' which was constantly suggested and demanded.

4. For any other further explanations I am at the public's disposal at any time," Thaler concluded.

Catherine Trautmann MEP, president of the French Socialist delegation to the European Parliament, stated in a press release that "to work as a consultant while being an MEP is one of most elementary conflicts of interest: elected representatives must service the commitments they have made to their voters and must fulfill their duties with honesty, morality and integrity".

"The Parliament must shed light on these allegations, which have sullied the office of member of the European Parliament," she added.

Andreas Geiger from lobbying firm Alber & Geiger told EURACTIV that if a parliamentarian takes outside money for carrying out parliamentary activities, it would indeed be a major problem.

But he advised against taking everything published on the EU by the Sunday Times as reality, as in his words not every alleged "scandal" disclosed by the publication in the past was in fact scandalous.

The issue of parliamentarians having another job is complicated, Geiger said. On the one hand, it is seen as positive that MEPs have "real" jobs too, so they know the real world and the people which they represent, he argued.

"But we need to make sure that there is no link whatsoever between their parliamentary function and their civil society job to avoid potential conflicts of interest," Geiger said.

The Macedonian press reacted with irony to the news that Zoran Thaler had been exposed in what it saw as a corruption affair. In his capacity as an MEP, Thaler is the European Parliament's rapporteur on Macedonia and as such has delivered stern judgements on the corruption situation in the EU hopeful.

"Is the Macedonian government aware that Mr. Thaler's 'reports' and 'opinions' can be purchased for as little as 100,000 euros?" MINA Online asks.

The European Public Affairs Consultancies' Association (EPACA) said in a statement that they stand "for an ethical and irreproachable approach to lobbying. The behaviour revealed by the Sunday Times investigation, if replicated by a real lobbyist, would clearly be a severe violation of the EPACA Code of Conduct".

"We note the Sunday Times case has to do with a fake lobbyist – not a real one. Ethical, transparent lobbying is an important part of policy development in a democracy. It provides policymakers with the views of affected interests including NGOs, industry, and the groups that represent collective interests," it added.

Andy Rowell of the Alliance for Lobbying Transparency and Ethics Regulation (ALTER EU) said that "this scandal was an accident waiting to happen. The politicians in Brussels – who are responsible for making the laws – enjoy far too cosy a relationship with industry lobbyists. It is not surprising that the MEPs found it so easy to act on behalf of the fake lobbyists. This scandal could be merely the tip of the iceberg".

Erik Wesselius, also of ALTER EU, added that "these scandals underline the need for a high-quality, mandatory lobbying transparency register. If lobbyists had to declare their activities, then it would be easier to identify when the system was being abused".

The British press is famous for its journalistic spoofs exposing corruption.

In 2004, undercover reporters from the BBC programme Panorama pretended that they were lobbyists for the London 2012 Olympic bid. They managed to secretly film Ivan Slavkov, president of the Bulgarian Olympic Committee, who indicated he was willing to vote in favour of London's bid and to solicit votes from other IOC (International Olympic Committee) members in exchange for bribes.

As a result, Slavkov was expelled from the IOC.

More recently, journalists in Bulgaria and Romania have followed the example of their British colleagues.

Last December, journalists from two Bulgarian media firms, the weekly '168 chasa' and the bTV channel, sent invitations to 38 members of the Bulgarian parliament, chosen at random from across all party groups.

If they attended the event in question, the MPs were promised a Vertu mobile phone, which normally sells for 3,000 euros, the letter indicated.

The event was staged to coincide with an important debate in parliament.

Nevertheless, 16 MPs from almost every political group turned up at the event, most of them in chauffeur-driven parliament limousines (read more).

Last February, more than a hundred Romanian parliamentarians responded to an SMS invitation from a fake businessman in the United Arab Emirates who proposed them "a deal". Only later did they realise they had been fooled by a journalist.

The daily Romania Libera published a list of SMS messages from MPs interested in the deal and another series from those who declined the proposal (read more).

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