Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Severin: Time for action

It is now 16 months since the cash-for-influence scandal rocked the European Parliament and led to the resignation of two MEPs (Ernest Strasser and Zoran Thaler). A third MEP, Adrian Severin of Romania was sacked by the Socialist group but refused to resign from the Parliament. After the scandal, MEPs developed a new Code of Conduct aimed at preventing this from happening again, but it only came in on 1 January 2012 and cannot be applied retrospectively. So what happened next to Severin?

You may be surprised to learn that Severin is still an active MEP despite video tape evidence of him charging 12 000 euros for “two to three days’ work” which included persuading MEP Sebastian Bodu (Romania, European People’s Party) to table an amendment. Severin was promoting this amendment on behalf of a corporate client and expected to be paid for the service (information which was concealed from Bodu at the time). What Severin did not realise was that his corporate client was fake and that this was a sting operation by journalists at the Sunday Times.

Shockingly, Severin has faced no punishment from the European parliamentary authorities since the scandal broke. Documents secured by Magdalena Moreh, the Brussels-based correspondent for Romanian Public Television (TVR), show that the European Anti-fraud Office (OLAF) recommended that Severin be considered for sanction under the Parliament’s rules of procedure. After an investigation, OLAF concluded that Severin “did not act independently when he supported an amendment to European legislation in the legislative process in return for payment”. OLAF has also passed its file to the authorities in Severin’s home country of Romania and recommended “judicial action”.

European Parliament President Martin Schulz has the power to impose one of the, albeit weak, sanctions at his disposal on Severin. Yet according to sources close to President Schulz, his decision will depend on what action the Romanian authorities take.

In January 2012, in a somewhat bizarre development, Severin complained to the European Ombudsman about the way in which he had been investigated by OLAF; the Ombudsman has yet to rule on this complaint. Meanwhile, OLAF wrote in its concluding note to the previous President of the European Parliament Jerzy Buzek that while it had received Severin's full cooperation during their investigation, they were not able to “acquire forensic electronic data in the European Parliament or to conduct interviews with witnesses due to the European Parliament’s refusal to provide the necessary support”. Elsewhere OLAF has said that the Parliament refused to cooperate with their two attempts to search Mr Severin’s office and those of the other MEPs.

The Parliament was apparently concerned about OLAF's remit to investigate and the immunity of MEPs. OLAF has now told CEO that its Director-General Giovanni Kessler and Martin Schulz have recently launched talks to clarify the legal situation concerning OLAF’s investigation of Members of the Parliament.

In another recent development, the senior Socialist MEP Lidia Geringer de Oedenberg (who is also a member of the Bureau which is responsible for the enforcement of the new MEP code of conduct) wrote a comment piece in which she defended Severin’s actions and argued that he should be considered innocent until proven guilty. The Alliance for Lobbying Transparency and Ethics Regulation has published a robust response to her article.

The case of Severin has clearly challenged the parliamentary authorities, as well as the previous European Parliamentary leadership of Mr Buzek and the current presidency of Mr Schulz. And with the Romanian investigations still pending, it remains unclear whether President Schulz will sanction Severin and show, once and for all, that agreeing a payment in return for influencing parliamentary business is totally unacceptable.

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