Fléchard investigators come up empty-handed in probe

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Series Details Vol 7, No.11, 15.3.01, p6
Publication Date 15/03/2001
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Date: 15/03/01

By John Shelley

FRAUD investigators trawling through the European Commission's secret files have failed to unearth the infamous 'missing minutes' from a meeting at which officials controversially decided to slash a multi-million-euro fine, according to MEPs.

Parliamentarians who have seen the confidential final report by the EU's anti-fraud office, OLAF, on the Fléchard case of export subsidies mishandling say the probe has not uncovered any crucial fresh evidence.

Investigators are believed to have spent months searching through the Commission's computer archives looking for the minutes of the meeting. MEPs had hoped the records, which some believe have been deliberately buried, would show who forced through the decision to reduce the fine.

Export firm Fléchard was found guilty of fraud in 1993 after being caught claiming export subsidies for butter intended for Russia but which actually ended up in Poland. The Parliament believes it was only because the French government put political pressure on the Commission that the €17.6-million fine was subsequently reduced to €3 million.

MEPs say without the missing minutes OLAF has refused to commit itself as to whether there was any wrongdoing in the case, although some insist the available evidence clearly shows that someone acted improperly.

"It confirms my suspicions that what happened in 1994 was not tolerable," said one.

OLAF's report on the Fléchard case was made available for the first time this week in a secure reading room open only to members of the Parliament's budgetary control committee.

Although investigators have not identified who or what was the driving force behind the decision, MEPs say the report does clear current Trade Commissioner Pascal Lamy of any direct involvement.

Lamy was the chief advisor to then-Commission President Jacques Delors in 1994 but OLAF investigators have evidence showing he was not present at the controversial meeting.

With OLAF recommending that the file be closed due to the inconclusive findings, the Commission - and many MEPs who are growing weary of a row that has been simmering for a decade - will be hoping that a series of interviews with Commissioners Lamy, Michaele Schreyer and Franz Fischler next week will put an end to the matter.

"What the committee wants in the hearings next week is some sort of mea culpa that something went wrong in the past and that, since then, they've got an entirely new set of rules," said one Parliament insider. "If they did that we might just give them a slap on the wrists and give them the benefit of the doubt."

Commission spokesman Luc Véron said he had not seen the OLAF report but that even if the minutes have been found they would not have revealed anything new.

He said it was a matter of public record that the fine was reduced because the Commission did not feel the level of the punishment was fair given the effect it would have on the firm and the nature of the offence.

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Record URL https://www.europeansources.info/record/?p=257007