(CN) – A health regulator who allegedly met secretly with Big Tobacco resigned voluntarily and was not forced out by the former head of the European Commission, the EU’s lower court ruled Tuesday.
The EU anti-fraud office known as OLAF discovered that former health and consumer-protection commission John Dalli had allegedly met secretly – and unofficially – with a tobacco company, and did so without the knowledge of his commission colleagues.
Given the potential public-opinion fallout and the risk to the commission’s reputation by having the EU’s health advocate courting Big Tobacco, now-former commission president Jose Manuel Barroso demanded Dalli’s resignation – a power given to him by the EU constitution.
Dalli sued to annul Barroso’s order that he resign, despite the fact that he signed a resignation letter drafted by a commission lawyer at the 2012 meeting with Barroso.
After hearing testimony from Dalli, Barroso, their representatives and the commission lawyer, the General Court of the European Union ruled on Tuesday that Dalli had resigned orally at the meeting with Barroso – and that the resignation had been voluntary.
The Luxembourg-based court said it based its finding on several factors, including statements made by Dalli in his native Malta – to parliament and Maltese media – that he had voluntarily resigned to better defend himself against any future allegations made by the commission or OLAF.
Dalli also told a Maltese radio station “I do not stay where I am not wanted” when asked whether Barroso had forced him out, the court found.
Furthermore, Dalli never challenged the commission’s announcement of his resignation and made very few changes to the resignation letter drafted by the commission lawyer, the court said.
For his part, Barroso did not dispute that he intended to demand Dalli’s resignation and in fact admitted telling the man “it would be better and more honorable, in those circumstances, for him to resign voluntarily, in order to be able to defend his reputation,” the court said.
But Barroso’s urging – no matter how forceful – did not rise to the level of an official demand for Dalli’s resignation that can be annulled by a court, and Dalli’s resignation had been completely voluntary, the court concluded.
Dalli has 60 days to appeal his case to the European Court of Justice.
The anti-fraud office’s allegations against Dalli involved “unambiguous and converging circumstantial evidence” linking the former commissioner to a middleman who solicited a $67 million bribe from Swedish Match in exchange for lifting a ban on the company’s chewing-tobacco products.
Dalli has consistently denied the allegations, and OLAF was sharply criticized for its questionable investigative practices.
More recently, the office has been accused of illegal wiretapping – allegations that led Belgian prosecutors to ask a court to suspend the diplomatic immunity of OLAF’s top officials this past weekend.
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