Scandal-Plagued Regulator Quit, EU Finds

     (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 European Court of Justice ruled Thursday.
     Former health and consumer-protection commissioner John Dalli appealed a 2015 ruling by the European General Court that he had resigned his post voluntarily amid scandal rumors, not forced out by then-commission president Jose Manuel Barroso as he claimed.
     Dalli’s case stems from a discovery by the EU anti-fraud office known as OLAF that 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, 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.
     The general court ruled against Dalli, basing 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 lower 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 lower court said.
     On Thursday, the EU high court found no errors in the general court’s findings or reasoning and rejected Dalli’s appeal.
     The Luxembourg-based court noted that the general court found that Barroso had offered Dalli two options: resign voluntarily or be formally requested to resign by Barroso. The high court agreed that “the mere mention made by Barroso of the possibility of using a power entrusted to him as president of the commission cannot be equated with the actual use of that power.”
     And because the general court concluded from its factual findings that Dalli resigned voluntarily, the high court said it is barred from reviewing “a purely factual assessment” on appeal.
     The court’s opinion was not made available by press time.
     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 in May 2015.

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