Qatar corruption scandal: Trade union chief admits to taking money from Panzeri

Qatar corruption scandal: Trade union chief admits to taking money from Panzeri
Former MEP Antonio Panzeri (left) and trade union leader Luca Visentini (right). Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The head of the world's largest trade union federation has admitted to taking money from one of the figures at the heart of a corruption scandal which has rocked European politics over the last couple of weeks.

On Monday, Luca Visentini, the former General Secretary of the International Confederation of Trade Unions (ITUC), issued a statement in which he admitted to receiving "a sum lower than €50,000" from Fight Impunity, an NGO run by former MEP Antonio Panzeri, without being asked for anything in return.

"I accepted a donation from Fight Impunity for a sum lower than €50,000," Visentini said. "I was not asked, neither did I ask for anything in exchange for the money, and no conditions whatsoever were set for this donation."

Visentini received the donation in a personal capacity but claims he used it in connection with his role at the ITUC. Allegedly, the union chief used the money to "reimburse some of the costs incurred to finance my campaign for the ITUC congress." He also claims to have "transferred the sum to the ITUC solidarity fund in order to pay for the union’s travel costs [to Melbourne].”

He added: "I accepted the donation in cash because of the quality of the donor and its non-profit character. It was in no way connected to any attempt of corruption, nor aimed at influencing my trade union's position on Qatar or on any other issues."

Despite rejecting as "totally untrue" all allegations of corruption against him, the 53-year-old Italian has decided to temporarily "self-suspend" himself as General Secretary of the ITUC. (He has since denied that he has resigned, however.) The ITUC board is scheduled to meet on Wednesday to discuss Visentini's future.

Prior to this year's World Cup in Qatar, human rights group FairSquare wrote to the ITUC to express its concerns regarding the federation's "failure to speak out against serious abuses by the Qatari authorities."

The ITUC denied as "entirely false" the "suggestion that any other entity, from Qatar or anywhere else, has influenced the ITUC's position" in connection with Qatar.

A sordid affair

Visentini was arrested by the Belgian authorities on 9 December in connection with the so-called 'Qatargate' corruption scandal, according to which the Qatari and Moroccan Governments are believed to have made payments to various political officials — including current Members of the European Parliament — in exchange for their support for pro-Qatari and pro-Moroccan policies.

Visentini was released two days later on condition that he inform the Belgian authorities if he intends to leave the EU over the next three months, and that he not contact anyone else involved in the investigation. The Financial Times has also reported that, despite Visentini's release, Belgian federal investigators are continuing to examine his bank accounts for potential irregularities.

Panzeri, who was similarly arrested on 9 December and whose wife and daughter are also under investigation, remains in police custody. €600,000 in cash was discovered by Belgian investigators upon searching the former MEP's apartment.

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In addition to Panzeri himself, Fight Impunity is reported to have had ties to a number of influential EU officials, including former European Commission Vice-President and High Representative for Foreign Affairs Federica Mogherini and other former European Commissioners, who accepted becoming honorary members of its board.

The NGO is also reported to have received up to €175,000 from the European Parliament, as well some additional funding from the European Commission but this has not been independently confirmed. There is another NGO, ‘No peace without justice’, which was founded by a former European Commissioner, Emma Bonino, who later also became a honorary board member in Fight Impunity.

This other NGO has received grants from the European Commission, chief spokesperson Eric Mamer confirmed at a press conference on Wednesday. Following the latest events, however, the payments to the NGO have been suspended pending further verification.

Fight Impunity has according to the Commission not received any EU funding and is not even registered in its Transparency Register. However, former Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos, a member of the board of Fight Impunity, did receive remuneration from it after his application to the Commission to serve in its board before the end of the two-year scrutiny period (‘cooling period’) was approved.

The Commission confirmed that it has asked Avramopoulos in writing to provide further information about his post-mandate activities until the end of the scrutiny period.

According to the Commission spokesperson, former Commissioners are not obliged to inform the Commission of any professional activities after the end of the scrutiny period. They are always expected to act with integrity and discretion also afterwards and not damage the Commission’s reputation. It is not known if other former Commissioners who were board members were paid by Fight Impunity.

Update: The article has been updated to include information from the European Commission's press conference on Wednesday (21 December), the last press conference before its holiday break.

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