An internal report by the EU anti-fraud office, OLAF, has shed light on how close the bureau came to hunting down the sources of a German investigative journalist, in a case with implications for press freedom in the E.U. capital.
“The EU official or officials responsible for the leak escaped discovery by a whisker.”
The German journalist, Stern magazine correspondent Hans-Martin Tillack, in 2002 published a series of articles based on a confidential 46-page-long OLAF-document which, among other issues, spoke of dodgy dealings in the European Commission‘s statistical wing, Eurostat.
OLAF’s probe into the leak saw an anonymous EU official accuse Mr Tillack of bribery, the EUobserver reports.
The information was too scanty for OLAF to identify who leaked the document. But it was enough for OLAF to alert Belgian police, which in March 2004 raided Mr Tillack’s office in Brussels and snatched computers and notebooks in the hope that they contained information about his sources.
OLAF’s “Final Case Report” – dated 10 December 2009 and obtained by EUobserver – describes how the EU anti-fraud bureau then got its hands on Mr Tillack’s materials.
“On 6 May 2004 OLAF sent a request for access to the Belgian judicial case file and the seized material to the Brussels Prosecutor General with the aim to enable OLAF to identify the EU staff responsible,” it says. On 17 June 2004 the prosecutor general “confirmed by fax and letter that he authorised OLAF to access the judicial case file.”
The EU official or officials responsible for the leak escaped discovery by a whisker.
Despite having the materials in its hands, OLAF then decided that it was legally too risky to dig around inside because of pending appeals: “Although the permission was granted to do so, it was never exercised given Mr Tillack’s pending administrative and legal proceedings in Belgium, Luxembourg and Strasbourg, among others, against the legality of the search,” OLAF’s Final Case Report says.
The Strasbourg court exonerated Mr Tillack in 2007. But Belgian police held on to his property until 2008, while OLAF kept certain “documents originating from this seizure” until 2009.
“Because we went to the courts we were able to block OLAF’s access to the seized documents. I am very glad that we managed to protect our sources despite the illegal attempts of the authorities to identify them,” Mr Tillack told this website.
The Final Case Report on its front page says: “Officials concerned – Could not be established.” It states that the affair caused no financial damage.
But under the rubric “Other impact,” it adds: “Reputation of the EU institutions in general and of OLAF in Particular.”
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