Expenses scandal at EU social committee

EUROPE - The European Economic and Social Committee, a European Union consultative body set up in 1957, has become embroiled in a scandal over travel expenses.

The EU's anti-fraud office OLAF - no stranger to controversy itself - has found evidence that a committee member practiced 'double reimbursement' of expenses. The maximum potential sum involved, over a period of six years, was around €45,000, the EESC said.

The EESC, which said it cooperated fully with OLAF's probe, added that the unnamed member was interviewed but vehemently denied the allegations.

OLAF is forwarding its findings to the Belgian public prosecutor.

"The EESC will naturally cooperate fully with the Belgian authorities in any action they decide in this respect," the EESC stated. It has asked a Brussels lawyer to intervene on its behalf.

"I and my predecessor, Roger Briesch, have been and remain absolutely determined to ensure full financial probity," said committee president Anne-Marie Sigmund, an Austrian lawyer and PR executive.

"It is important that due process and the rights of the individual concerned should be scrupulously respected.

"It would be wrong for me to say more about the allegations concerning the individual whilst the matter remains potentially sub judice.

"However, I expect the person in question to take appropriate action in the best interests of the committee and the European institutions' public image."

She said she has ordered a full internal enquiry and will try to retrieve any misappropriated cash. A spokesman for the committee said he was not able to disclose the name of the member.

He said EESC members are not entitled to salaries or other emoluments.

He added they only receive a travel and subsistence allowance as reimbursement for their EESC activities. "No pension rights can be acquired and for this reason the EESC cannot retain any pension or other rights as they don't exist in any form whatsoever.”

The European Economic and Social Committee aims to represent "the various economic and social components of organised civil society".