Commission failed to adequately examine adviser's conflicts of interest, Ombudsman rules
Brussels, 13 July 2011 – The European Ombudsman has found that the European Commission "failed to adequately examine potential conflicts of interest" when it employed former MEP Pat Cox as a Special Adviser to Commissioner Meglena Kuneva from 2007 to 2009 . The finding follows a complaint registered by Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO) in February 2010 .
CEO raised concerns about a possible conflict with Cox's lobbying work for Microsoft, Michelin, Pfizer, lobby consultancy, APCO as well as his own lobby firm ‘’European Integration Solutions’’ (EIS).
The Ombudsman further ruled that he could not assess "whether an actual, potential or apparent conflict of interest existed" because insufficient information was made available by the European Commission “both as regards Mr Cox’s tasks as Special adviser and his outside activities’’.
CEO is calling for a review of the rules for the appointment of special advisers, following the ruling, to ensure that their interests and activities are fully assessed.
Commenting on the case, CEO researcher Yiorgos Vassalos said: "The Ombudsman has highlighted a clear failing in the way in which a Special Adviser's conflicts of interest were assessed by the Commission. Individuals who are employed or acting as lobbyists for corporate interests should not be allowed to promote those interests as advisers to the Commission. The only way to prevent such conflicts of interest is through proactive and public assessment of Special Adviser’s outside activities."
The Ombudsman’s verdict states that "in 2007, 2008, and 2009, the Commission failed adequately to examine the issue of potential conflict of interest in the appointment of Mr Cox as a Special Adviser to Commissioner Kuneva."
The Ombudsman concluded that the Commission’s statement that the absence of a conflict of interest was "the result of a thorough examination of the merits of the case" is not supported by evidence.
"The Commission examination appears to be incomplete because it singled out one of the activities carried out by Mr Cox (his involvement with EIS) as potentially relevant and overlooked all his other activities," according to the Ombudsman's report.
According to the Ombudsman, the Commission’s overall approach "does not show due respect to the procedural safeguards which the Commission itself has put in place in response to public concerns about transparency in relation to Special Advisers".
The Ombudsman also noted that the form of ‘‘Declaration of Activities’’ currently used by the Commission  looks more like a declaration of posts held rather than of the activities performed’. There is no information on what was the exact nature of Cox’s tasks in Microsoft, Pfizer, Michelin, APCO and European Integration Solutions.
The Ombudsman asked for the ‘Declaration of Activities’ of Special Advisers to be modified in order to obtain sufficient information about their outside activities. He said that the "Declaration of Activities (…) is an issue not adequately addressed in the Rules on Special Advisers".
"When a Special Adviser makes a substantial change to his/her Declaration of Activities, a new Declaration of Assurance’ should ‘be submitted by the responsible Commissioner," he advised. "The Commission should possess the information necessary concerning private interests of a prospective Special Adviser before concluding the absence of a conflict of interest. Should the available information not suffice to carry out such an examination the Commission must take steps to obtain it."
Corporate Europe Observatory doubts if the Commission has improved its practice. Several of the Commission’s current Special Advisers give cause for questions. The public cannot scrutinise these cases as long as the Special Advisers’ Declarations of Activities are not published. In an analysis piece publish today, Corporate Europe Observatory spells out how it sees the way forward in improving transparency around Special Advisers .
The Ombudsman will await the Commission’s response to his recommendations up to 31 January 2012 and then will decide whether to launch an own initiative inquiry. ENDS
Yiorgos Vassalos, Corporate Europe Observatory, tel: +32 28930930
 The Commission's handling of conflict of interest issues in relation to the appointment of a special adviser to a Commissioner, European Ombudsman, 11 July 2011.
 A complaint to the Ombudsman re Pat Cox, Corporate Europe Observatory, 23 February 2010.
 Transparency around Commissioners’ Special Advisers needs to be improved, Corporate Europe Observatory, 13 July 2011.
Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO) is a research and campaign group working to expose and challenge the privileged access and influence enjoyed by corporations and their lobby groups in EU policy making. This corporate capture of EU decision-making leads to policies that exacerbate social injustice and accelerate environmental destruction across the world.