More questions than answers as 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 cash-for-favors corruption scandal at the European Union’s parliament, allegedly involving Qatar. No light is visible inside.

No Peace Without Justice (NPWJ), a pro-human rights and democracy organization, and Fight Impunity, which seeks to bring rights abusers to book, share the same address, on prime real estate in the governmental quarter of the Belgian capital.

The heads of the two organizations are among four people charged since Dec. 9 with corruption, participation in a criminal group and money laundering. Prosecutors suspect 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 seem to be under suspicion.

Qatar rejects allegations that it’s involved. The Gulf country that’s hosting the soccer World Cup has gone to considerable trouble to boost its public image and defend itself against extensive criticism in the West over its human rights record.

The lawyer for Fight Impunity President Pier Antonio Panzeri is not talking. He declined to comment about his client’s role in an affair that has shaken the European Parliament and halted the assembly’s work on Qatar-related files.

The secretary-general of NPWJ, Niccolo Figa-Talamanca, has left jail but must wear an electronic monitoring bracelet. On its Italian website, after he stepped down, the group praised his work, saying it hopes “the ongoing investigation will demonstrate the correctness of his actions.”

Charged along with them are Eva Kaili, who was removed as an EU parliament vice president after the charges were laid, and her partner Francesco Giorgi, a parliamentary assistant. Pictures they’ve posted on social media project the image of an attractive and ambitious Mediterranean jet-set couple.

Following months of investigations, police have so far launched more than 20 raids, mostly in Belgium but also in Italy. Hundreds of thousands of euros have been found in Brussels: at an apartment and in a suitcase at a hotel not far from the parliament.

Mobile telephones, computer equipment and the data of 10 parliamentary assistants were seized.

Taking to Twitter, Belgian Justice Minister Vincent Van Quickenborne described what he calls the “Qatargate” investigation as a “game changer.” It was achieved, he said, “partly thanks to years of work by State Security,” the country’s intelligence agency.

According to what Italian newspaper La Repubblica and Belgian daily Le Soir said were transcripts of his Dec. 10 statements to prosecutors, Giorgi allegedly confessed to managing money on behalf of an “organization” led by Panzeri that dealt with Qatari and Moroccan representatives.

“I did it all for money, which I needed,’’ Giorgi told prosecutors, according to La Repubblica. He tried to protect his partner Kaili, a 44-year-old Greek former TV presenter with whom he has an infant daughter, asking that she be released from jail. Kaili’s lawyer has said she knew nothing about the money.

Giorgi arrived in Belgium in 2009. He made a career at the parliament with the center-left Socialists and Democrats (S&D) group. He met Panzeri, at the time an EU lawmaker, at a conference. “I asked him to give me an internship, and he did,’’ Giorgi said in his statement.

Panzeri became his mentor, made him an assistant and introduced him around, the Italian newspaper said. Giorgi expressed relief that the scheme had been uncovered. He described himself as a simple person who got in over his head due to a moral obligation he felt toward Panzeri.

Up until his arrest, Giorgi worked as an assistant for another S&D lawmaker, Andrea Cozzolino. Italy’s center-left Democratic Party suspended Cozzolino on Friday while the probe goes on. He temporarily withdrew from the S&D.

In Italy last weekend, Panzeri’s wife, Maria Dolores Colleoni, and daughter, Silvia Panzeri, were taken into custody on a European arrest warrant. A court in Brescia ordered them to be placed under house arrest, one of their lawyers told AP.

On Friday, a Milan judicial source confirmed to AP that 17,000 euros ($18,075) were seized during a search of Panzeri’s house, where his wife is staying, in Calusco d’Adda in the Bergamo province northeast of Milan. Police also seized computers, cell phones, watches and documents.

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

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

The source in Milan, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to comment publicly, said Italian investigators were looking at other people but declined to identify them. The source said they were not EU lawmakers or people associated with the campaign groups.

Many questions remain unanswered about the scandal. What Qatari officials, if any, were involved? Why target the EU’s parliament? How wide is the investigators’ net? What was the role of Panzeri, the former lawmaker and president of Fight Impunity?

No light shines in his office, but Panzeri’s own words on his group’s website could point the way: “Martin Luther King Jr. once said, ‘let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.’ If we are to continue to move towards justice, accountability must be our guiding light.”

___

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

Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.