Monday, March 21, 2011

EU parliament probes MEP corruption claims


BRUSSELS — The European parliament sought to contain a looming corruption scandal Sunday as three of its deputies faced bribery allegations, one of whom has already resigned.

The parliament quickly opened an investigation after Britain's Sunday Times reported that three MEPs -- Austria's Ernst Strasser, Romania's Adrian Severin and Zoran Thaler of Slovenia -- had accepted offers of up to 100,000 euros ($141,000) per year in exchange for proposing amendments in the EU parliament.

"The parliament has just opened an inquiry into these allegations so the facts can be fully established," parliament spokesman Jaume Duch told AFP.

"The Sunday Times' allegations are severe and the European parliament is taking them seriously," he said, adding that the newspaper's documentation was being sent to parliament for examination.

The fresh scandal made its first victim on Sunday as Strasser, a former Austrian interior minister and European deputy for the conservative People's Party (OeVP), announced his resignation.

Vice Chancellor and OeVP leader Josef Proell had earlier called for his "immediate resignation from all political posts", describing his behaviour as "unacceptable".

"All of Ernst Strasser's justifications so far ring completely hollow given today's revelations from the Sunday Times," Proell added.

Adrian Severin, a former Romanian deputy prime minister, denied on the other hand all accusations against him, adding he had asked the European parliament to consider legal action against the authors of the expose.

"This whole story is an endless outrage," he told the Mediafax agency.

"I want parliament to conduct an internal probe to make it clear I did not commit any fault in this case."

Former Slovenian foreign minister Zoran Thaler, 49, also rejected The Sunday Times's report, saying it was part of attempts to discredit the work of the European parliament.

"As long as I'm convinced I did nothing illegal, I'll remain in my post and try to clear (the allegations)," he told AFP.

Over an eight-month investigation, Sunday Times journalists posing as lobbyists contacted some 60 MEPs to verify rumours that some were prepared "to sell their services" and push through specific amendments in exchange for remuneration, the broadsheet revealed Sunday.

Three deputies took the bait.

According to the newspaper, Severin "emailed the reporters saying: 'Just to let you know that the amendment desired by you has been tabled in due time,' then sent an invoice for 12,000 euros for 'consulting services'."

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

"We have the right... to work as political consultants, the only requirement being that we not hand out confidential information," he said Sunday.

Both Strasser and Thaler have claimed they knew all along that the bribe offer was a sham but that they wanted to see how far it went before bringing the matter to the police.

"From the first moment they made me such an indecent proposal, I knew it was a manipulation intended to compromise and discredit a member of the European Parliament," Thaler told AFP.

"I never took the money they offered and I would never do so," he added to the Sunday Times' claims that he had asked for payments to be sent via a London company so he would not have to disclose them.

Strasser also pushed through compromises on behalf of the pretend lobbyists and did not plan on disclosing the money to parliament, the broadsheet added.

Martin Schulz, chief of the European Socialists, to whom both Thaler and Severin belong, cautioned Sunday that it was crucial to meet both deputies "as soon as possible, to hear what they have to say".

"A (newspaper) article is not a court ruling."

If the allegations turned out to be true however, "I will propose their suspension," he added.

The European parliament has repeatedly come under fire in the past over questionable expenses, leading to tighter controls following an internal audit in 2009.

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