Disputed MEP faces fraud charges

A controversial member of the European Parliament (MEP) could be in court for fraud later this year, it has emerged.

Hans-Peter Martin made headlines by secretly filming MEPs of different nationalities and political movements to expose their alleged abuse of various privileges in Strasbourg, France, and Brussels, Belgium, where the European Parliament (EP) and the European Commission (EP) are located.

Now the EP’s juridical issues committee decided to strip Martin of the immunity he enjoyed as MEP. The panel announced yesterday (Mon) that the decision was made unanimously. The committee’s move means Martin may face charges of serious fraud, embezzlement and abuse of public subsidies later this year or next year. The EP is set to give its verdict in September.

The EP’s juridical commission got active following Martin Ehrenhauser’s recent decision to report his former political ally to state prosecutors in Vienna. Ehrenhauser accuses Martin of pocketing one million Euros of subsidies by setting up a complex system of letterbox companies and promotion agencies. Ehrenhauser left the EP faction of Martin – who had fallen out with other fellow MEPs before – over the allegations.

Ehrenhauser told Austrian press he called on Martin several times to clarify where the money went. The MEP explained the affected sum was a subsidy the state political parties receive depending on their success in elections. Reports by magazine profil suggested Martin spent substantial amounts of the money to renovate and expand his house in Tübingen. The weekly magazine also claimed his wife could have been involved in keeping the public funds for their own needs.

Martin announced today he planned to vote in favour of him losing privileges of parliament. The populist MEP claimed he wanted to help prosecutors dealing with the “baseless” accusations brought forward against him. He accuses Ehrenhauser of getting hold of information from his computer illegally.

Martin is one of Austria’s most disputed politicians. The former journalist headed the Social Democrats’ (SPÖ) campaign in the EP vote in 1999. He never joined the party and left its faction in the parliament shortly after the ballot over various disagreements in opinion. Martin decided to set up his own delegation to compete in the 2004 election.

He achieved his biggest success to date in the EP vote two years ago. Martin managed to increase his share by 3.69 per cent to 17.67 per cent in the ballot. At the same time, the SPÖ suffered a 9.59 per cent drop in votes to 23.74 per cent. The conservative People’s Party (ÖVP) and the Austrian Greens also did worse in 2009 than in 2004.

Martin – whose EP faction exists of no one but him in the meantime – is the co-author of bestseller “Die Globalisierungsfalle” (The Global Trap) which was published in 1996. He wrote a daily one-page spread column for the Kronen Zeitung in the weeks leading to the EP ballot 2009. The right-wing newspaper has been an outspoken supporter of his political agenda. However, the daily remained silent about the allegations brought forward against Martin by Ehrenhauser. Both MEPs helped the Kronen Zeitung to exclusive stories about the alleged abuse of public money by European Union (EU) decision-makers over the years. The Viennese daily is dominating the Austrian newspaper market. It has nearly three million readers a day. The Kronen Zeitung is believed to be the most popular national newspaper in the democratic world as Austria has around 8.5 million citizens.

The feud between Ehrenhauser and Martin comes on the heels of the resignation of Ernst Strasser. The former interior minister stepped down as MEP and head of the ÖVP’s delegation in Strasbourg after The Sunday Times accused him of accepting money in return for political action in March. The British newspaper revealed clips showing how Strasser offered his services to act in favour of companies for 100,000 Euros. The ex-MEP – whose offices were recently searched by anti-corruption officials – told the newspaper that he was a lobbyist.

Strasser denied any wrongdoing shortly after the Sunday Times story was published. He claimed having tried to uncover illicit operations by businesspeople – but refused to make clear why he did not inform the EU’s corruption watchdogs.

The Strasser scandal tempted the Austrian government coalition of SPÖ and ÖVP to create a stricter law against corruption and lobbying for money by political decision-makers. The bylaw has not yet been agreed upon due to disagreements about aspects of deatail. The Greens criticised the draft bill as not stringent enough.

Non-government organisations (NGOs) also hit out at the SPÖ-ÖVP administration about the planned decree for “being thrown into the same pot” as corrupt lobbyists.