No sign of smoke clearing: Commission and OLAF's response to Parliament’s 154 Dalligate questions

Last week the Commission and OLAF responded to 154 questions on Dalligate tabled by MEPs. Instead of clarifying the basic facts about the Dalli lobby scandal, the Commission and OLAF left most key questions unanswered. The smoke is far from being cleared, and more pressure for real answers, and for stronger lobby rules, is urgently needed.

In mid- November, the European Parliament tabled 104 questions to the EU’s anti-fraud agency OLAF, and a further 50 to the Commission, in an attempt to shed much-needed light on the events that led to ex- health Commissioner Dalli's resignation. In its reply last week OLAF did not respond substantively to 27 of the 104 questions, instead invoking investigative secrecy, which appears completely inappropriate for a number of these questions. For example, why should the confidentiality and data protection requirements of the Dalli investigation prevent an answer to whether the Dalli case has led OLAF to pursue other traces or suspicions of misconduct and/or fraud?

Given the over-riding public interest in the resignation of a Commissioner under controversial and contested circumstances, it is by no means a cut-and-dry legal issue that the Commission cannot disclose the facts around Dalligate. Some legal analyses, based on EU case law, suggest that the Commission is in fact free to disclose the OLAF report to the European Parliament, because of the Parliament’s requisite role of democratic oversight.

In any case, disclosure of the OLAF report is only one element of the problem. The limited information provided by the Commission so far has been contradictory and raised a large number of burning questions. Using the ongoing investigation by the Maltese police as an argument for not answering even the most basic questions about what happened in the scandal is unacceptable. Would a national government get away with this, if a government minister had to resign over a scandal involving corruption allegations?

We still need basic answers about why Dalli resigned, whether Barrosso requested his resignation, and if the Commission maintains it has “no evidence of any illegal behaviour of Mr Dalli”. In which case, we need to know if Dalli broke any internal rules, and if these rules were in the code of conduct for Commissioners, or if they were based on the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control. We need transparency on whether the Commission is investigating other cases of “unofficial contacts with... industry, through a private intermediary, without there being any discernible or legitimate reasons to involve this intermediary,” the reputed reason for Dalli's resignation being the only politically tenable option.

But instead of answering these questions, the Commission’s response to Parliament shows a very disturbing attitude. Despite the obvious failure of the current rules and procedures around contacts with lobbyists, the Commission says it “has no plan to review its rules related to the consultation of stakeholders in the tobacco industry in the policy-making process.

One cannot help but wonder at some of the Commission's answers. To the question “Were documents relating to the review of the Tobacco Directive destroyed in DG SANCO”, the Commission answers that “No instruction was ever given to destroy documents”. Why not give a direct answer, to avoid the appearance of deliberate circumvention? OLAF is no better, responding to a question about two telephone calls between OLAF and the government of Malta, on October 15 at 10:01:26 hours and on October 21 at 19:52:43, that “Without further information, OLAF is unable to identify these telephone calls.” What are the public supposed to conclude from this? That the anti-fraud agency has so many telephone calls with the Maltese government that more than one is underway at any given second!?

It is however true that some remarkable new information about the lobbying and high-level access of the tobacco industry comes to light from the Commission's responses, serving to raise even more questions. This includes conversations between the Commission’s Legal Service officials and ex-head of Legal Services turned lawyer lobbying for Philip Morris International. It also includes two meetings between the Commission’s Secretariat General and former MEP Ms Riis-Jørgensen turned lobbyist for Kreab Gavin Anderson, whose clients include Swedish Match. Meetings that ware not disclosed under recent access to documents requests for all such contacts.

The Commission appears not to care about the damage the continued secrecy is doing to its already fragile reputation. It dismissively responds to concerns about the public perception and appearance of bribery, corruption and wrongdoings, saying that “this case, however regrettable, doesn’t call into question the integrity and reputation of the Institution.”

The Commission urgently needs to wake up and smell the smoke, before it lets the whole house burn down.

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