The EU’s anti-fraud watchdog (OLAF) is too close to the institutions it investigates and appointments to top positions there are too political, according to a prominent Green MEP. But centre-right colleagues dismissed the allegations as “nothing new”.
“OLAF is a mess,” Dutch Green MEP Paul van Buitenen, a member of the Greens/European Free Alliance Group, told journalists at a press conference yesterday, alleging that its “rigged” staff selection procedures are plagued by “political interference” and accusing it of making “misleading statements to the outside world”.
The whistle-blowing MEP also accused the European Anti-fraud Office of “inertia on crucial files”. Many dossiers sit untouched for years, making them ineligible for use in criminal investigations, he explained.
OLAF was established in April 1999 and has been led by German Franz-Hermann Brüner since 2000. Its “special independent status” allows it to conduct administrative investigations into the actions of the EU institutions, despite being technically part of the European Commission under the responsibility of Anti-Fraud Commissioner Siim Kallas.
Van Buitenen’s allegations, many of which date back years, were detailed in a 45-page letter addressed to top EU officials on 25 November. The MEP gives a whole series of examples of “possible serious malfunctioning” by OLAF since its creation. He calls on the anti-fraud office to sever its ties to the Commission and become a completely separate body instead.
The Dutchman chose to highlight four recent cases in particular: a “rigged selection process” which led to the appointment of two directors, a “fake” bribery claim against a journalist, an abandoned conflict of interest case concerning an MEP and a “misleading” investigation into financial irregularities at an ACP-EU enterprise development centre.
“If no further investigation is carried out into the cause of these indications, the irregularities will continue to exist, several cases will remain unsolved and the Anti-fraud Office will remain unsolved,” Van Buitenen declared.
Last year, OLAF Director-General Brüner requested the Commission’s disciplinary office (IDOC) to carry out an independent enquiry into the selection of the two directors. “I have no doubt about the correctness of the procedure leading to [their] appointment […] but I cannot allow for this campaign against OLAF to continue without reacting,” Brüner said.
The enquiry found no grounds for disciplinary action, leading the director-general to declare in November 2008 that he “never had any doubts as to the propriety of the recruitment procedure”. Nevertheless, he admitted that the findings confirmed “administrative shortcomings in [OLAF’s] management” and insisted that reforms had already been put in place to “reduce the risk of similar situations arising again”.
German centre-right MEP Ingeborg Grässle, Parliament’s rapporteur on reform of OLAF, dismissed Van Buitenen’s dossier as “a mere remake of old and unfounded allegations on facts which have been repeatedly clarified and rectified”, criticising him for refusing to cooperate with the budgetary control committee’s own investigations into the office.
“Mr. van Buitenen is obviously looking for an issue for his electoral campaign and he thinks that he can be re-elected by accusing everybody, just to be in the spotlight until the next parliamentary elections,” Grässle said.
Van Buitenen, who by his own admission ran for election to the Parliament on an anti-corruption ticket, caused a storm earlier this year by publishing a report detailing abuses of the current payment system for MEPs’ assistants on his website (EURACTIV 07/03/08).
The assistants scandal led the Parliament’s bureau to reform the system in July (EURACTIV 14/07/08), but EU Ombudsman P. Nikiforos Diamandouros still ruled later that month that the insitution’s continued failure to disclose details of its members’ allowances constituted “maladministration” (EURACTIV 16/07/08).