More questions than answers as EU corruption scandal unfolds
BRUSSELS (AP) — No one answers the door or the phone at the offices of the two campaign groups linked to a favor-money corruption scandal in the European Union parliament, allegedly involving Qatar. There is no light inside.
No Peace Without Justice (NPWJ), an organization in favor of human rights and democracy, and Fight Impunity, which seeks to convince rights violators, share the same address, in a prime building in the capital’s government district Belgian.
The heads of the two organizations are among the four people charged since December 9 with corruption, participation in a criminal group and money laundering. Prosecutors suspect that certain European lawmakers and aides “received large sums of money or offered substantial gifts to influence decisions in parliament.” The groups themselves do not appear to be under suspicion.
Qatar rejects the accusations that it is involved. The Gulf country hosting the soccer World Cup has gone to great lengths to improve its public image and fend off widespread criticism in the West over its human rights record.
The lawyer for the president of Fight against Impunity, Pier Antonio Panzeri, does not speak. He declined to comment on his client’s role in an affair that rocked the European Parliament and halted the assembly’s work on Qatar-related files.
NPWJ General Secretary Niccolo Figa-Talamanca has been released from jail but must wear an electronic tracking bracelet. On its Italian website, after his resignation, the group praised his work and said it hopes “the ongoing investigation will show the correctness of his actions.”
Joining them are accused Eva Kaili, who was ousted as deputy speaker of the EU parliament after the charges were brought, and her partner Francesco Giorgi, a parliamentary assistant. The images they have published on social networks project the image of an attractive and ambitious couple from Mediterranean high society.
After months of investigations, police have so far launched more than 20 raids, mostly in Belgium but also in Italy. Hundreds of thousands of euros have been found in Brussels: in an apartment and in a suitcase in a hotel not far from parliament.
Mobile phones, computer equipment and the data of 10 parliamentary assistants were seized.
On Twitter, Belgian Justice Minister Vincent Van Quickenborne described what he calls the “Qatargate” investigation as a “game changer.” It was achieved, he said, “partly thanks to years of work by State Security,” the country’s intelligence agency.
According to what the Italian daily La Repubblica and the Belgian daily Le Soir said were transcripts of his December 10 statements to prosecutors, Giorgi allegedly confessed to handling money on behalf of an “organization” run by Panzeri that dealt with representatives of Qatar and Morocco.
“I did everything for money, which I needed,” Giorgi told prosecutors, according to La Repubblica. He tried to protect the couple from her Kaili, a 44-year-old former Greek TV presenter with whom he has a young daughter, by asking for her release from jail. Kaili’s lawyer has said that he did not know anything about the money.
Giorgi arrived in Belgium in 2009. He had a career in parliament with the centre-left Socialists and Democrats (S&D) group. He met Panzeri, at the time an EU lawmaker, at a conference. “I asked him to give me an internship and he did,” Giorgi said in his statement.
Panzeri became his mentor, making him an assistant and introducing him, the Italian newspaper said. Giorgi expressed his relief that the scheme had been discovered. He described himself as a simple person who crossed the line due to a moral obligation he felt towards the Panzeri.
Until his arrest, Giorgi worked as an assistant to another S&D MP, Andrea Cozzolino. Italy’s center-left Democratic Party suspended Cozzolino on Friday while he continues the investigation. He temporarily withdrew from S&D.
In Italy last weekend, Panzeri’s wife, Maria Dolores Colleoni, and their daughter, Silvia Panzeri, were arrested on a European arrest warrant. A Brescia court ordered them placed under house arrest, one of his lawyers told the AP.
On Friday, a Milan judicial source confirmed to the AP that 17,000 euros ($18,075) was seized during a search at Panzeri’s home, where his wife is staying, in Calusco d’Adda, in Bergamo province, northeast of Milan. The police also seized computers, cell phones, watches and documents.
Police separately found a key to a safe at Giorgi’s parents’ home in Abbiategrasso, a suburb of Milan, leading investigators to discover 20,000 euros ($21,260) in cash.
Panzeri’s wife is expected to appear in court again on Monday, when a panel of judges will decide whether to extradite her to Belgium. A similar hearing will be held for her daughter on Tuesday. Kaili will face court in Brussels on Thursday.
The source in Milan, who spoke on condition of anonymity because she was not authorized to comment publicly, said Italian investigators were watching other people but declined to identify them. The source said they were not EU lawmakers or people associated with the campaign groups.
Many unanswered questions remain about the scandal. What, if any, Qatari officials were involved? Why target the EU parliament? How wide is the network of researchers? What was the role of Panzeri, the former deputy and president of the Fight Against Impunity?
No light shines in his office, but Panzeri’s own words on his group’s website might point the way: “Martin Luther King Jr. once said: ‘Let us realize that the arc of the moral universe is long, but leans towards justice’. If we are going to keep moving towards justice, accountability must be our guiding light.”
Barry reported from Milan. Samuel Petrequin in Brussels and Nicole Winfield in Rome contributed.