More questions than answers as the EU corruption scandal unfolds

BRUSSELS (AP) – No one answers the door or the phone at the offices of the two campaign groups linked to a money-for-favors corruption scandal in the European Union Parliament allegedly involving Qatar. No light is visible inside.

No Peace Without Justice (NPWJ), an organization campaigning for human rights and democracy, and Fight Impunity, which aims to bring violators to justice, share the same address in prime real estate in the Belgian capital’s government district.

The heads of the two organizations are among four people charged since December 9 with corruption, involvement in a criminal organization and money laundering. Prosecutors allege that certain European lawmakers and aides “were paid large sums of money or offered substantial gifts to influence Parliament’s decisions”. The groups themselves do not appear to be under suspicion.

Qatar denies allegations of involvement. The Gulf country that hosts the World Cup has gone to great lengths to polish its public image and resist widespread criticism in the West over its human rights record.

Fight Impunity President’s Attorney Pier Antonio Panzeri is not speaking. He declined to comment on his client’s role in an affair that has rocked the European Parliament and halted the Assembly’s work on Qatar-related files.

NPWJ secretary general Niccolo Figa-Talamanca has been released from prison but is required to wear an electronic surveillance bracelet. On its Italian website, following his resignation, the group praised his work and said they hoped “the ongoing investigations will prove the correctness of his actions”.

Indicted with them are Eva Kaili, who was ousted as Vice-President of the European Parliament after the indictment, and her partner Francesco Giorgi, a parliamentary assistant. Pictures they posted on social media convey the image of an attractive and ambitious Mediterranean jet set couple.

After months of investigations, the police have so far carried out more than 20 raids, mainly in Belgium but also in Italy. Hundreds of thousands of euros were found in Brussels: in an apartment and in a suitcase in a hotel not far from Parliament.

Mobile phones, computer equipment and the data of 10 parliamentary assistants were confiscated.

On Twitter, Belgian Justice Minister Vincent Van Quickenborne described what he calls the “Qatargate” investigation a “game changer”. This was “partly thanks to the years of work by the State Security,” the country’s secret service.

According to Italian newspaper La Repubblica and Belgian daily Le Soir, which were transcripts of his testimony before prosecutors on December 10, Giorgi is said to have confessed to managing funds on behalf of a Panzeri-led “organization” dealing with Qatari and Moroccan representatives.

“I did all this for money I needed,” Giorgi told prosecutors, according to La Repubblica. He was trying to protect his partner Kaili, a 44-year-old Greek former TV presenter with whom he has a young daughter, and asked to have her released from prison. Kaili’s lawyer said she was unaware of the money.

Giorgi came to Belgium in 2009. He made a career in parliament with the centre-left Socialists and Democrats (S&D) group. At a conference he met the then EU legislator Panzeri. “I asked him to give me an internship and he did it,” Giorgi said in his statement.

Panzeri became his mentor, made him an assistant and put him around, according to the Italian newspaper. Giorgi expressed his relief that the plan had been uncovered. He described himself as a humble person who overwhelmed himself because of a moral obligation he felt towards Panzeri.

Before his arrest, Giorgi was working as an assistant to another S&D MP, Andrea Cozzolino. Italy’s centre-left Democratic Party suspended Cozzolino on Friday while the investigation continues. He temporarily resigned from the S&D.

Panzeri’s wife Maria Dolores Colleoni and daughter Silvia Panzeri were arrested in Italy last weekend with a European arrest warrant. A court in Brescia ordered house arrest, one of her lawyers told the AP.

On Friday, a Milan justice source confirmed to the AP that €17,000 ($18,075) was seized in a search of Panzeri’s home in Calusco d’Adda, in the province of Bergamo, northeast of Milan. The police also confiscated computers, cell phones, watches and documents.

Police separately found a key to a safety deposit box at Giorgi’s parents’ home in the Milan suburb of Abbiategrasso, prompting investigators to discover 20,000 euros ($21,260) in cash.

Panzeri’s wife is expected to appear in court again on Monday when a judges’ panel will decide on her extradition to Belgium. A similar hearing will be held for her daughter on Tuesday. Kaili will appear in court in Brussels on Thursday.

The source in Milan, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly, said Italian investigators examined other people but refused to identify them. The source said they are not EU lawmakers or anyone linked to the campaign groups.

Many questions about the scandal are still open. Which Qatari officials, if any, were involved? Why target the EU Parliament? How broad is the network of investigators? What was the role of Panzeri, former lawmaker and Fight Impunity president?

There is no light in his office, but Panzeri’s own words on his group’s website may point the way: “Martin Luther King Jr. once said, ‘Let us realize that the arc of the moral universe is long, but it inclines toward justice. ‘ If we are to move further towards justice, accountability must be our guiding principle.”

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Barry reported from Milan. Samuel Petrequin in Brussels and Nicole Winfield in Rome contributed to this.

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