MEPs to probe EU auditors' expenses after media allegations
EU politicians will scrutinise documents held by the bloc's budget watchdog following allegations made in a journalistic investigation about auditors' expenses and living arrangements, despite the head of the institution dismissing the accusations as “not having much to do with reality”.
Klaus-Heiner Lehne, President of the European Court of Auditors (ECA), appeared before a sitting of the parliament’s Budgetary Control Committee on Tuesday evening to address claims made in an article published by the French daily newspaper Libération on Friday that he and eight other auditors had received unwarranted accommodation allowances.
The Luxembourg-based ECA is to provide documents for inspection by two members of the committee, who will then prepare a report for the committee, it was agreed, following a series of allegations against Lehne and several other auditors.
The newspaper claimed that Lehne has received more than €325,000 in additional Luxembourg accommodation allowances – equivalent to 15% of an ECA member’s monthly salary - to which he was not entitled, as he spends most of his time in the German city of Düsseldorf.
Lehne acknowledged that his family had not moved with him to Luxembourg and said that he does “what many others do, I travel back and forth at weekends”, insisting that his main residence during the week was in the Grand Duchy.
The ECA president said he “sub-contracts” part of his apartment in the Kirchberg area of Luxembourg City, amid claims in the article that he shares the property with other ECA staff.
“I am accused of sharing my flat with two of my staff members,” he said. “I see no problem with that and that has nothing to do with my presence in Luxembourg. It is my business where and with whom I live in Luxembourg.”
“I rent that apartment in Luxembourg because it is 800 metres from the court. I don’t need an apartment of that size. I offered some part of the apartment to sub-contractors,” Lehne added.
Rental contracts of ECA members are supplied to the Luxembourg authorities, Lehne said, and details are checked.
“What we don’t allow… is for people to enter an apartment and check if the bed is warm and the toothbrush used,” he said.
The head of the ECA dismissed as “just not true” an accusation in the report that he remains a “very active” member of the CDU political party in Düsseldorf, which would constitute a breach of the watchdog’s rules, which ban political activity.
“I gave up all my political activities (when I joined the ECA)… I am not involved in any political activity. It is just not true,” he told MEPs. “Of course, I can continue to have contact with my former colleagues… that does not conflict with any of the rules of the ECA.”
In September, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) ordered former auditor Karel Pinxten to forfeit two-thirds of his ECA pension for abuse of expenses.
Pinxten’s actions, which included using an ECA card to buy fuel for other people’s vehicles, had inflicted “serious damage” on the “image and reputation” of the guardian of the EU’s finances, the ECJ said. Pinxten is facing an ongoing criminal investigation in Luxembourg over the matter.
Two decades ago, Libération’s reporting of accusations of fraud and misuse of power by EU research commissioner and former French Prime Minister Edith Cresson resulted in the mass resignation of European Commissioners, led by then president and former Luxembourg Prime Minister Jacques Santer.
The ECJ found Cresson breached her responsibilities, though it did not impose penalties, which could have included voiding Cresson’s pension. A Belgian court then dismissed a criminal case over the matter.
Lehne said that the Pinxten case had been used to create an impression of “a dysfunctional system” of expenses and controls at the ECA. “That impression was not right then and is not right now. As soon as possible (after I became president) the rules on expenses were amended,” he said.
Vehicle policy 'looks odd'
At least eight other ECA auditors apart from Lehne are present in Luxembourg only occasionally, the investigation alleged, despite being required to live in the Grand Duchy. Figures cited in the article were disputed by the ECA president, although he admitted that members could not always be present in Luxembourg.
“For a simple reason. 2019 was the last year where we were working normally,” he said. “34 missions [travel to carry out official ECA duties] took place in 2019. That is probably 100 working days. What that means is that we cannot [always be there]. Members [also] have to go to Brussels, Strasbourg and national parliaments. I represent the ECA in international organisations,” Lehne added.
The budget watchdog’s policy on the allocation of cars and drivers – provided to each ECA member for a monthly cost of just €100 - “looks odd”, Lehne acknowledged, saying it was something “we will have to look at”.
“With regards to vehicles, the situation is not the best at the moment. If you are in a top vehicle and you are paying €100 that looks odd. No doubt about it. We will have to look at that,” he told the committee.
Several MEPs said that the accusations published required further scrutiny by the committee.
“I would like to see an acknowledgement that this is a serious accusation by a serious newspaper in France,” said Bas Eickhout, while French MEP Pierre Karleskind reminded the ECA president there were avenues for redress under French law if he believed the allegations were incorrect.
“Do us all a service and file a complaint,” Karleskind told Lehne, criticising other committee members for rushing to conclusions over the findings within days. “This journalist brought down the Santer Commission.”
Committee member Olivier Chastel said the article had “set the cat among the pigeons” and added that the policy on the use of vehicles does “not appear to comply with tax rules in many member states”.
Living arrangements 'somewhat strange'
The disclosure that “an ECA president has sub-contractors living with him in an apartment” is “somewhat strange”, German MEP Daniel Freund said.
Pressed by committee members on whether the EU’s anti-fraud agencies EPPO and OLAF would examine the allegations, Lehne replied that there would have to be "solid" evidence to support their involvement. “I don’t think that there would be in this instance,” he added.
The ECA president said he is “not against additional checks” but appealed to MEPs for “a bit of trust”.
“We are taking it very seriously as you are. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be here today,” Lehne said, before appearing to contradict himself: “We are not taking the accusations seriously though. They are wrong.”
“I am not against additional checks. But what I cannot accept is that there are totally unjustifiable accusations. Not a single allegation that we can follow,” he said. “What I simply expect [from MEPs] is that there is a bit of trust in what we are doing. The press is not better than anyone else.”
“Months of research seem to have gone no further than publishing photos of my flat…the article that appeared did not have much to do with reality,” the ECA president said, adding that “we have been in contact with a lawyer”.
It was agreed that two committee members – who are yet to be confirmed – would be given access to relevant ECA documents with a view to preparing a report for the committee at a later date, while MEP Isabel García Muñoz is to liaise with the court’s internal and external auditors.
Members of the committee have a week to submit any questions to the ECA for response, the meeting heard.