The key figure in the EU corruption scandal has been a key witness for the public prosecutor since mid-January. Since then it has been remarkably quiet around Pier Antonio Panzeri, 67 years old, social democrat from Italy, MEP until 2019 and then director of a lucrative and dubious non-governmental organization called “Fight Impunity”. But now the newspapers “Le Soir” and “La Repubblica” have obtained the transcripts of interrogations that took place between February 2nd and 13th. In it, Panzeri gives further insights into the bribery system he set up together with his former assistant in parliament, Francesco Giorgi. It places a heavy burden on Giorgi, his partner Eva Kaili, the former vice-president of Parliament, and other MEPs, all of whom are accused by prosecutors. But a new name also appears in his statements – and another country that is said to be involved in the scandal alongside Qatar and Morocco.
It all started with Morocco
In the interrogations, Panzeri describes how his association with Abderrahim Atmoun, who now serves as Moroccan ambassador to Poland, began in 2012. Panzeri said the Moroccan diplomat paid €50,000 for one of his campaign events in Milan in 2014 and that his “friendship with Atmoun has grown stronger over time”. Ambassador Atmoun also paid for lavish trips to Morocco for Kaili, Giorgi and two other MEPs, Andrea Cozzolino and Maria Arena. Money is only said to start flowing from Morocco starting in 2019, after he and Giorgi agreed to take €50,000 a year to work for a positive impression of the North African state in EU political circles.
He also stated that a similar agreement was reached with Mauritania government officials around the same time, whereby both he and Giorgi are said to have received only two payments of 50,000 euros each. Between 2019 and 2021, both he and Giorgi each received 100,000 euros from there, Panzeri testified. This, in turn, he attributed to a meeting with the country’s former president Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz in late 2018, when Panzeri was still an MEP and headed the Human Rights Committee. Aziz has expressed the wish “that one does not speak badly about one’s country and is more interested in seeing it in a positive way”. So far, only Giorgi had mentioned Mauritania and testified that he had rented his Brussels apartment to the country’s ambassador for 1,500 euros a month. This was in return for a consultation. In contrast, Panzeri received 25,000 euros.
Money from Qatar flowed through “Turkish businessman”
During interrogations with the Belgian judiciary, Panzeri claimed that Qatar tried to expand its network of influence in the EU institutions in late 2017. This is when payments to EU policymakers began to flow. After a meeting between the accused and Qatar’s Labor Minister Ali bin Samikh Al Marri in early 2018, the government of Qatar agreed to pay him and Giorgi 1 million euros a year in 2018 and 2019. Interrogation records indicate that in 2018, Giorgi’s partner, Eva Kaili, also started the side business. Panzeri claims the Greek MEP received €250,000 from Qatar to fund her campaign for re-election to the European Parliament in 2019.
While some details of the money transfers remain unclear, much of the Qatari money is said to have flowed through a “Turkish businessman and his lawyer in London” to the lobbyists in Brussels. Panzeri claims another Italian MP also received cash and met with interlocutors involved in the alleged corruption ring.
Qatar is said to have paid at least 2.4 million euros for the bribe. According to the key witness, the largest payment was made after the meeting with MPs in Doha in spring 2019. Francesco Giorgi received 1.25 million euros at the time and passed part on to the MPs. For himself he would have pocketed 250,000 euros. Larger sums later flowed because Qatar wanted to influence the International Trade Union Federation. Panzeri claims to have kept the largest part, 500,000 euros. This is how he explains the large sum of cash that investigators found when they searched his Brussels apartment on December 9 – the day the scandal became public.
“I’m not the mastermind”
At some point during the nearly six-hour interrogation, Panzeri told prosecutors he wanted to “dismantle the idea” that he was the “mastermind” behind the system. Rather, his assistant Giorgi was the “messenger” and handed over envelopes and bags of cash to everyone involved, including Panzeri himself. He described how he personally “persuaded” Belgian MEP Marc Tarabella to support Qatar in Brussels with an initial €20,000 in cash and that over time Tarabella received up to €140,000. Tarabella voted to waive his own parliamentary immunity in February and was arrested shortly thereafter.
It remains unclear whether the millions of euros from Qatar to Giorgi and Panzeri were intended to bribe other EU officials or just to pay for their services.
Panzeri lost his post in parliament in the 2019 elections, according to his interrogation his Italian colleague Andrea Cozzolino, who received around 600,000 euros to campaign for Qatar, then took over. Giorgi became Cozzolino’s assistant in the European Parliament.
New lead into the conservative camp?
So far it has been assumed that all those involved in the scandal at the Brussels political level were members of the Social Democrats. According to the minutes of Panzeri’s interrogation, the group of suspects could now be extended to include the conservatives of the EPP: Lara Comi, Italian Christian Democrat from Forza Italia. In November last year she replaced party leader Silvio Berlusconi, who resigned after being elected senator in Rome. She had previously been a member of Parliament from 2009 to 2019.
Comi is said to have attended a meeting in Qatar in March or April 2019 where the emirate offered its financial support in the election campaign for the European elections at the end of May. Andrea Cozzolino and Kaili are said to have also been present, although Panzeri is not entirely sure about the Greek. In any case, she is one of the beneficiaries. “I am sure that at the end of this meeting the Qataris decided to provide 250,000 euros each for the election campaign of the three,” claims the key witness.
Thrown money in the trash can
Whether Comi actually received the money is uncertain, Panzeri can no longer remember, because Giorgi is said to have been responsible for the distribution, who made a partial confession in his first interrogation and revealed himself as a “treasurer”. Panzeri reports on another incident that is surprising even in the context of this affair. So the Comi called him “in April or May 2019” and asked him to get a bag from her Brussels apartment. Panzeri sent an employee of the Social Democratic Group who kept the bag with him. Shortly thereafter, allegations of fraud were made against Comi as part of a major Italian scandal, including the financing of her election campaign. When Panzeri found out about this, he and the messenger opened the bag. “I saw clothes and empty books in there with 60,000 to 70,000 euros in them, I didn’t count it. So I took everything and decided to throw the money in the trash.” He doesn’t know where the money came from. Comi’s re-election failed due to the poor results of her party.
The politician, who is currently on trial for the Italian fraud case, had the allegations rejected. Comi never accepted illegal payments for her 2019 election campaign, her lawyer said, not even for the benefit of third countries. “Consequently, no funding for the 2019 election campaign proposed by Panzeri was accepted, used or undeclared by Ms. Comi, as required by law.” The lawyer does not question the fact that there was an offer by Panzeri. The Group of the European People’s Party, to which Comi belongs, must now decide how to deal with this case. A group spokesman said that the assessment of the public prosecutor’s office would be used, not that of the accused. “If the prosecutor makes allegations, we will act accordingly.” So Comi could be ruled out.
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