‘Dalli said ban on snus was absurd’
Silvio Zammit remains silent
The Swedish tobacco manufacturer at the centre of the Dalligate scandal yesterday claimed John Dalli told a Maltese lawyer representing it that he thought the EU’s ban on snus – a smokeless tobacco product – was “absurd”.
Swedish Match told The Sunday Times that the former Commissioner appeared well informed about snus and “its health consequences”. It also claimed that on February 10 a key meeting took place between the company’s Maltese lawyer, Mr Dalli and the middleman at the centre of the scandal, Silvio Zammit.
The former Nationalist minister was forced to resign as EU Health Commissioner earlier this month following a probe by the EU’s anti-fraud agency, OLAF.
The agency concluded there was “unambiguous circumstantial evidence” showing Mr Dalli was aware that Mr Zammit had asked Swedish Match for a substantial amount of money in return for the ban being lifted.
Swedish Match said the lawyer had told the company that Mr Dalli said during the meeting that he had “the will, the arguments and the Commission’s support to lift the ban on snus, but also that it would mean political suicide for him”.
The lawyer also told Swedish Match Mr Dalli mentioned he was willing to take unpopular decisions, as long as science supported it.
After making this statement, Swedish Match claims, Mr Dalli left the meeting and Mr Zammit then allegedly told the lawyer that such a difficult and risky decision required substantial compensation, which was later elaborated into a figure of €60 million.
These details form part of a dossier that the company had passed on in May to the European Commission when it flagged the matter at EU level and emerges from an extensive chronological explanation, which came in response to a series of questions by The Sunday Times.
When contacted, Mr Dalli did not react to the specific claim that he said the ban on snus was absurd or that he had the will and Commission support to lift the ban on snus. However, he flatly denied such a meeting took place.
“There was no meeting with the lawyer on February 10. This was corroborated even by OLAF in the interview they had with me. Therefore anything the Snus people are spinning on this is completely false,” he said.
He added he may have said at some point that he does not shy from unpopular decisions if they are supported by independent World Health Organisation science, but this only strengthened the arguments he had been making since this case hit the headlines.
In its replies to this newspaper, Swedish Match said that it never understood who had invited Mr Zammit to the meetings, raising questions about his middleman role.
When asked if this meant the Maltese lawyer had corresponded directly with Mr Dalli, Swedish Match spokeswoman Rupini Bergstrom said the company did not have that information.
“We have never initiated a contact with the Maltese entrepreneur. We have consistently said that we were approached via our consultant by him,” she said.
On the other hand, Mr Dalli said: “I believe that it was Silvio who invited the lawyer to the meeting not the other way round.”
Mr Zammit has refused to comment on the case at all, while repeated attempts over a week to contact the Maltese lawyer have so far proved unsuccessful.
Meanwhile, Mr Dalli has restated his claim there was Maltese involvement in the circumstances leading to his resignation.
On TVM’s programme Dissett yesterday evening, Mr Dalli said he was convinced there was Maltese involvement. Previously, he had only gone as far as saying there may have been.
He even cast doubts on the role of Rita Schembri, the director general of the Internal Audit and Investigations Department within the Office of the Prime Minister, who forms part of five members of the Supervisory Committee of the European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF).
Mr Dalli said she had been a part of the OLAF investigations and was even present during questioning that took place in Malta. He said her position on the supervisory committee was compromised by the fact that she took part in the investigation.
Ms Schembri excused herself during discussions on the Dalli case at the committee but Mr Dalli suggested she should not have been involved in the investigation in any way.
No smoke without fire?
Tobacco company Swedish Match, which set the ball rolling on the EU investigation leading to John Dalli’s resignation, has responded to questions by The Sunday Times with a detailed chronology of events.
Mark Micallef chronicles the highlights.
• January 6
The Maltese lawyer representing Swedish Match in Malta reported she had met John Dalli and Silvio Zammit on this day.
She pitched the scientific, legal and tax benefit underpinning the company’s argument that the EU’s snus ban was unjustified and unfair. She said Mr Dalli mentioned he was willing to take unpopular decisions, as long as science supported them.
He was also receptive to receiving more information, especially, independent World Health Organisation science.
Mr Zammit was there too but the company says “it is not clear who invited him”. Neither the company nor ESTOC (European Smokeless Tobacco Council) paid him for the meeting.
Swedish Match and the female lawyer agreed she should meet Mr Dalli a second time to hand over further WHO scientific material related to the health effects of snus.
• February 10
Mr Dalli denies he met the lawyer or any other snus lobbyist on this day or at any date after January 6 but Swedish Match insists their lawyer told the company she attended a second “odd” meeting on this day with both Mr Dalli and Mr Zammit.
Again, the company said it is unclear who had invited Mr Zammit to this meeting.
The lawyer said Mr Dalli appeared well informed about snus, its health consequences, “and expressed clearly that the ban on snus was absurd”.
Mr Dalli was also reported by the lawyer as saying “he had the will, the arguments and the Commission’s support to lift the ban on snus”, but that it would be political suicide for him to do so.
Eventually, he left the meeting. It was at this point that Mr Zammit allegedly said Mr Dalli wanted compensation for lifting the ban.
• February 13
A Swedish Match official (unnamed by the company) flew over and together with the Maltese lawyer met Mr Zammit.
Mr Zammit allegedly repeated a request he made to the lawyer on February 10, but gave more details concerning price and conditions. He proposed a meeting between Mr Dalli and a top official from Swedish Match who would bring a part of the total price (€10 million) for lifting the snus ban. Mr Dalli would then explain how he would proceed to make this possible. The rest (€50 million) would be paid after the ban was lifted.
• February 18
Mr Zammit tried to contact ESTOC on the chairman’s e-mail, asking him to call back as he had something “interesting to talk to you about”. The message ended up with secretary general Inge Delfosse, who asked Mr Zammit to set out the services he was offering in an e-mail. At this time she had not been informed of the offer made to Swedish Match.
• February 21
Swedish Match informed its Maltese lawyer to reject Mr Zammit’s offer.
• February 24
The firm informed the Swedish Government about the offer.
• March 8
Mr Zammit contacted Ms Delfosse by e-mail and proposed a meeting with Mr Dalli. On March 16, Ms Delfosse returned his e-mail and asked how much he would charge.
When Patrik Hildingsson (vice-president public affairs, Swedish Match and chairman of ESTOC) learnt about this he told Ms Delfosse to be very careful with Mr Zammit as he had made an “indecent” offer to Swedish Match.
Mr Hildingsson did not inform anyone else within ESTOC.
• March 29
Mr Zammit contacted Ms Delfosse again by phone and offered to fix a high-level meeting in which the proposal to lift the ban was guaranteed. He restated the terms through which a deposit would be paid in an initial meeting. Swedish Match informed the Swedish Government of this second approach.
• April 2012
Swedish Match started collecting all the material, documents, e-mails and meeting reports it had, together with its lawyers.
• Mid-May 2012
Swedish Match submitted the facts to the European Commission and the Commission immediately responded by alerting the EU’s anti-fraud agency to the issue.