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Dalli interview: ‘My decisions on tobacco directive had been leaked’

A week after his fall from grace at the European Commission, John Dalli insists he has done nothing wrong and instead points a finger at “hidden hands” in Malta and abroad, and even at “GonziPN”. He also tells Mark Micallef that allowing canvassers to act as middlemen with lobbyists is not an unhealthy practice.

Did you communicate with the Prime Minister at some point after you got to know about the OLAF investigation?

I am going to really fight for the truth to come out... I will uncover any misdeeds or wrongdoings in the process

We had a meeting once, on other issues, and he mentioned that he knew. This was when the investigation all started. He knew what was happening.

When was this?

I completely forget the dates but it must have been by the end of July, something like that... Naturally, I spoke to him over the phone.

What was the response?

Nothing extraordinary. The Prime Minister said, I spoke to (European Commission President Jose Manuel) Barroso... but even he did not know what the motivation was (behind the main claim against Mr Dalli) because it (the report) is confidential...

You have complained that the EU Anti-Fraud Agency, OLAF, did not give you the opportunity to rebut its report before it was published. Did you query this?

I have queried it in many statements that I have made.

I mean, at this point you have probably engaged lawyers...

But the lawyers are naturally, at the moment, working on the case and we are progressing with actions, one after the other... The first one was yesterday, when I sent a letter to Barroso asking him to specify the legal basis of my dismissal.

You are also reported saying, in that letter, that there is no resignation. Is there or isn’t there?

Verbally, I did tell him that I would resign but for that resignation to take effect it should be instigated by a written request for resignation from Mr Barroso and my reply in writing, saying that I have resigned. This did not happen.

And in that request you expect to be told in writing why you were made to...

The legal basis and a formal request by Barroso, this is what I...

What is the point of this?

The point of this is for everyone to shoulder his responsibility. I don’t want anyone to run away from the responsibility they have.

It seems like you are asking to be sacked.

No, I am asking for the proper procedure to be followed.

During the meeting with Mr Barroso, he read the covering letter of the report. And then?

And then there was a discussion in which I told him, look this is all hogwash... this is not at all true... I had nothing to do with this and in fact OLAF confirmed I had nothing to do with it.

They are saying there is no conclusive evidence that you played a part (in the request for a bribe from snus-producer Swedish Match).

That there was no evidence... because whoever wants to give it the spin, as you have been giving it in your newspaper...

That is what OLAF said.

Yes, that is what Olaf said but then you spin one way or you spin the other and you (The Times) have been spinning very much one way with editorials and with everything else and with misreporting... but anyway we’ll leave that to when the time comes.

The point is that there is no evidence that I was in any way involved in this issue. The decision-making process of my services has been totally transparent and therefore there is no taint whatsoever on that process.

There is circumstantial evidence claiming that I was aware. I always stated that this was not true. And I have consistently stated that I was unaware of communication passing between Silvio Zammit and the snus people.

To this day, the OLAF report is not public. Would you make it public if it came into your hands?

I would, unless by doing this I would be jeopardising my legal rights. I have to be careful, but I am asking them to make it public. I don’t have any problem with that.

You’re battling your position without knowing what this circumstantial evidence is. Aren’t you at risk of something being sprung on you that you were not expecting?

I am going to really fight for the truth to come out. I know what the truth is and I will uncover any misdeeds or wrongdoings in the process and also, I will uncover any hidden hands behind all that is happening.

I’ll return to this... When this happened, your reaction was to give some statements and interviews with fringe...

What fringe organisations, isn’t it a newspaper?

One would have expected you to call an international press conference and speak to all the media.

I had the same effect. I made a You Tube presentation which was read by all the media.

But it seems like you were shying away from difficult questions.

I was not shying away from anything, I was taking advantage of the offers that were being made to me for assistance and I have taken the steps that have had the same effect as giving a press conference, even more of an effect.

Because I immediately sent a video with my side of the story which was, I can assure you, seen by all the media... And that is why, unlike what you are doing here in Malta, the media in Brussels is very supportive of me.

Because the media in Brussels, who know the context of the Brussels operations, are sympathetic to what could have happened and why. But the interest here is simply to dirty John Dalli.

Questions are being asked all over the place but it is only natural for the Maltese press to be mainly concerned with the reputation of the Maltese Commissioner.

Some Malta press that is controlled by GonziPN is concerned only to dirty my name for their own political ends.

You have spoken about entrapment; do you suspect the hand of a Maltese person in this?

It could be and I am going to stop here.

But are you referring to the usual foes?

What I am saying is GonziPN immediately organised a campaign in the usual press domain, in The Times, Independent, TVM....

Isn’t it obvious that there would be huge press interest in this?

It’s the same people who did the character assassination in 2004.

You are discounting the facts on the table. The press is presented with a situation where OLAF, an EU institution, has made very serious and damning allegations in your regard...

Yes but you didn’t take the time to ask what there could have been behind it. In the first few minutes you went out with a barrage of condemnations.

In the first few minutes we broke the story.

You broke the story with your conclusions.

You said that you expected Barroso to support you.

At least to explain to me what this is all about. Wouldn’t you have expected that?

It seems like an understandable stand for the President of the Commission to distance himself from these allegations and therefore the target of those allegations, you.

I will not go into the options he had...

Do you think he would have acted differently had you been a Commissioner from a big country?

I am not going to speculate about that. This is all conjecture which I will not fall into. Probably their prime ministers would have acted differently.

How so?

By really asking whether there was any substance to what was being done.

So you feel the Prime Minister should have supported you too?

I mean (he) should have verified that there is substance (behind the allegation) not say that it is an opportunity for them as they did when they were in Bucharest.

This is how you feel the Prime Minister is seeing this, as an opportunity to get rid of you?

I don’t know what type of opportunity they were referring to, but this is what they stated in Bucharest, yes.

You said in an interview that there were Commissioners who have supported you in the College, the day after your resignation...

There were, quite a number.

Were you told what sort of support? What were the concerns being raised?

The concerns that were raised were that there was no basis for such decisions to be taken.

You said at one point that some of them think the allegations against you are frivolous.

That is my impression, yes.

So this is not something that someone said but it’s your impression.

This is what I am being told, and also because everybody knows the practices within the Commission.

What practices?

For example, meeting people, meeting lobbyists.

But nobody is disputing that.

Who knows? Do you know whether that is the circumstantial evidence?

On the basis of what (OLAF head) Giovanni Kessler said, one can make a distinction between the lobbying, which he called legitimate, and the request for money to influence the Commission legislation.

OK, so that is very, very clear then. I made it clear that I did not know about any dealings or communications in which money was requested... Moreover, the communication happened from March onward.

When the directive was a done deal?

The directive was finished, I had already closed the door on the directive.

But there was still opportunity to change it, wasn’t there?

What opportunity? Sorry, am I going to tell my people, this is the way and then go later and say let’s change it? And as Kessler said, this is not one person making this decision...

And I can tell you, it was not on the cards. In fact, in the final version, the ban on snus is still there.

In fact, to tell you the truth, we were also suggesting a ban on all smokeless tobacco but that was changed when we negotiated with the other services in the Commission.

So your position was to ban all smokeless tobacco and this was changed after resistance from the European Commission.

That’s right.

You said in an interview that there was opposition to the tobacco directive you were proposing. Where was this opposition coming from?

It was coming from the people...

Which DGs (Director Generals)?

It wasn’t DGs at that stage. It had not reached them yet. The fact is that when we were finished with the directive on August 25, we received a letter from the Secretary General of the Commission and the head of the legal services of the Commission – after this draft directive had already passed two impact assessments – saying that this had to be postponed because they wanted to discuss some other things. That’s your answer.

You said this was a systematic plan of entrapment. The way you questioned the OLAF conclusions and the way in which Barroso dismissed you, suggests to me that you think they may be involved in this plan.

What I think is up to me, not up to you.

I’m an observer.

I am stating the facts and I will stay with the facts. When it comes to drawing certain conclusions, I will do that in the relevant court of law.

What indicates to you that there is a systematic plan of entrapment?

I would not be such an evil mind as to think that for someone to set up a meeting he would take money

First, a few weeks after I made the decisions I was going to make on snus, the snus lobby started to contact Mr Zammit again to come to an arrangement with him.

This was when?

This was in March. In February I had closed the communications. After I closed, they started communicating (with Mr Zammit).

In the correspondence (an e-mail from the snus lobby to Mr Zammit) they expressly stated: “We are hearing a lot of disturbing news from Brussels.”

Now, I don’t think you have to be Sherlock Holmes to know what this was. It was a leak of what my decisions were.

How many people would have known of these decisions at this stage?

The Directorate General for Health and Consumer Affairs, made up of about 50 people, and my Cabinet. Anyway, I think the disturbing news was what I was deciding.

And this shows what (little) influence they had on me at that stage. I think anybody can see that, and what did they do? They tried to get at me by offering money.

At that point they offered money to Silvio Zammit to obtain a meeting with you.

To get a meeting with me and I stress that Mr Zammit never communicated this offer to me. Never.

You have also said that Mr Zammit “never asked you to meet these people”. Later that day, Mr Kessler said you had two meetings with these people.

No, you are mixing the dates up.

No, here there was no qualification of dates.

I was talking of two meetings, one in 2010 and one in January of 2012. These are the two meetings.

In the bit I cited, you were making a reference to this 2012 e-mail by the European Smokeless Tobacco Council but you made no qualification that your statement referred to a particular period when you said: “Zammit never asked me to meet these people.” It’s quite a categorical statement.

These people never communicated this offer referred to in that e-mail. That is what I was saying. Mr Zammit never told me to meet these people on the offer (referred to in that e-mail).

You said: “This is something that Mr Zammit, I can vouch, never communicated to me. “We’re in agreement there. The next line says: “He never asked me to meet these people.”

You can say whatever you want. I was saying from March onward...

What about prior to January, what was discussion like with Mr Zammit concerning snus.

Nothing. There was no discussion.

So, your liaison with Mr Zammit was always about meetings, these two meetings?

He said that he had somebody here that wanted to meet me and in fact he came to a hotel in Gozo where I was having a holiday and this person gave me two reports from PriceWaterHouseCoopers, which said how good the economic benefits of tobacco were. Then the second meeting was with a young lawyer who wanted to know the information on snus. And I gave her the information. That’s all.

That is why Kessler said these meetings are inconsequential. And that is all the meetings that happened and all the meetings that Mr Zammit contacted me upon and nothing else.

You never had a discussion with him about snus or about the directive?

Absolutely not.

Could you tell us a bit more about the two questioning sessions with OLAF? In their line of questioning, was there anything which suggested to you what this circumstantial evidence that Mr Kessler is talking about might be?

Listen, I am not a stupid person so, from their line of questioning, I could deduce what it could be. But I don’t know. And that is why I am saying, publish the report. Because if it is what I deduce then I can...

Can we know your deductions?

No, not at the moment. Let them publish my report first. I am making that clear, I want them to publish the report.

You said that Mr Zammit received a phone call from the snus people as late as July, after the investigation had started. What did they ask for?

The same request that they had made in March, I am told, for a meeting. and paying money for that meeting.

You were told this by?

I was told this by Mr Zammit because after the meetings I had with OLAF, I met him so I could understand what the hell was happening. And I have told OLAF this. I informed OLAF that I met Mr Zammit and that he had passed to me certain information and I passed this on to OLAF. I think I had a right to do it, no?

Let’s go into your relationship with Mr Zammit...

Silvio Zammit is a canvasser like many hundreds of canvassers that I have. That is the relationship with him. And with him I have the contact I have with other canvassers. When they need something and when they have some friend who needs something. It’s the usual political game in Malta.

Fair enough, but in this case, didn’t it strike you as odd that this small-time Sliema councillor/businessman was involving himself in such a big...

Why not, I have other people here, for example. I have many other people, in Malta, who have international organisations asking them to fix appointments with me. This is not just Silvio Zammit doing it because it seems that people think that you have to go to a Commissioner through somebody.

Yes, but isn’t that inviting trouble?

What trouble? This kind of trouble was arrived at because people wanted it. But I need to be informed about what people think, to take the best decisions.

There is nothing strange in a Commissioner meeting lobby groups from different sides. What seems to me to be inviting trouble is having a middleman whose only qualification is having access to you.

You know his qualifications better than I do.

You know him much better than I do.

Whatever, I have other people who have contacted me over the past two-and-a-half years, in the most transparent way, and asked me to have meetings with people and I did. So what?

You described a money offer by the snus lobby to Mr Zammit for a meeting as a bribe.

That is what it is.

Wouldn’t these middlemen be demanding money for these services? Would they be doing it voluntarily?

I would not be such an evil mind as to think that for someone to set up a meeting he would take money. All I say is that it usually is a feeling of importance (that these canvassers seek).

So you think that money is not traded in these circumstances.

No. I mean that as far as I am concerned, whenever anybody held any meeting with me, money was never an issue. I don’t know of any instance or any sniff of a possibility that money was an issue.

That these people would make themselves available to these companies for a fee.

No.

Isn’t fostering...

I am not fostering anything. People ask me to meet people as other Commissioners do, and this is, if you ask me, why they were up in arms because everybody does this. Everybody meets people in the Commission and so they should.

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