STRASBOURG, France (AP) — European Union lawmakers voted Wednesday to replace a disgraced former parliament vice president after a key suspect in a the cash-for-influence scandal rocking the EU assembly made a plea bargain with prosecutors, raising the prospect of more people getting named.
Former European Parliament Vice President Eva Kaili was removed from her post after she was taken into custody early last month on charges of corruption, money laundering and membership in a criminal organization.
Lawmakers held a secret ballot in Strasbourg, France, to choose among three nominees for vice president. They picked Marc Angel of Luxembourg, who belongs to the same center-left political group, the Socialist and Democrats (S&D), as Kaili.
The corruption scandal linked to Qatar and Morocco has ravaged the S&D group, the second-largest in the EU assembly. Kaili was responsible for the Middle East, but Parliament President Roberta Metsola wants to appoint an anti-corruption vice president to repair the assembly's tarnished image. It's unclear whether Angel would be given such a portfolio.
Belgian prosecutors suspect that Kaili; former parliament member Pier Antonio Panzeri; Kaili’s partner and Panzeri’s friend Francesco Georgi; and Niccolo Figa-Talamanca, head of the charity group No Peace Without Justice, were paid by Qatar and Morocco to influence decision-making at the assembly. Both countries deny the allegations.
The federal prosecutor’s office said Tuesday that Panzeri had agreed to become an informant and reveal more information about the scandal in exchange for a lighter sentence. He’s pledged to tell investigators the names of those involved and what financial arrangements were made with other countries.
Several EU lawmakers and officials have said that the corruption allegations are the most damning to have hit the parliament. The S&D has been the prime target, and its members are wary that things might get worse.
Panzeri’s lawyer avoided reporters as he left the main Brussels courthouse on Tuesday but later, in an interview with Belgian broadcast RTBF, said that the 67-year-old Italian would probably only now receive a five-year suspended sentence, with one year to be served in detention.
The lawyer, Laurent Kennes, said Panzeri would also be fined 80,000 euros, and would have to give up the estimated 1 million euros that prosecutors suspect he earned from his corruption dealings.
Panzeri “wants to talk, to get things off his chest. He is vulnerable, he’s locked up, he’s depressed," Kennes said. "Under those circumstances he wants to be able to see light at the end of the tunnel.”
The scandal came to public attention on Dec. 9 after police launched more than 20 raids, mostly in Belgium but also in Italy. Hundreds of thousands of euros were found at a home and in a suitcase at a hotel in Brussels. Mobile phones and computer equipment and data were seized.
Prosecutors also suspect Panzeri’s wife and daughter of taking part in the scheme and have issued arrest warrants to have them handed over by Italian authorities.
In a separate development Wednesday, the S&D decided to eject Belgian lawmaker Marc Tarabella. Prosecutors have asked the assembly to lift his parliamentary immunity in relation to the scandal. The group had requested that Tarabella step aside voluntarily but he refused, forcing its hand.
Another lawmaker that prosecutors want to talk to, Andrea Cozzolino from Italy, had already left in line with the S&D’s request. Both men will remain parliamentarians but not attached to any political group until the investigation is completed.
The center-left bloc also named Silvina Bacigalupo — the head of the anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International Spain and a criminal law professor — and former British EU lawmaker Richard Corbett, an expert on parliament’s rules of procedure, to head a separate S&D probe.
Its work is expected to take 2-3 months.