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Exclusive: EU graft inquiry shifts to ex-health chief's overseas activity

John Dalli, European Commissioner for Health and Consumer Policy, speaks at a news conference at the EC headquarters in Brussels July 17, 20
John Dalli, European Commissioner for Health and Consumer Policy, speaks at a news conference at the EC headquarters in Brussels July 17, 20

By Charlie Dunmore and Luke Baker

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - EU investigators have expanded an anti-corruption investigation into former European health commissioner John Dalli, who was forced out last year after an associate was accused of attempted bribery, to include his overseas dealings while in office.

Dalli's overseas activities, including business links or undeclared visits to countries in Africa, Asia and the Middle East, are new strands in a case that has already looked into the propriety of his dealings with tobacco company Swedish Match and whether a number of trips he made to the Bahamas broke European Commission rules.

"We are looking into whether such international activities were compatible with his obligations as a commissioner at the time," Giovanni Kessler, the head of the European Union's anti-fraud office, known by its French acronym OLAF, told Reuters.

While Kessler declined to specify the new elements in the case, people who met Dalli in the Bahamas and other business and investment sources said activities in Thailand, Dubai and a handful of African countries were under scrutiny.

Dalli, 65, told Reuters he had no knowledge of the expanded OLAF investigation and declined to comment further. He has previously denied any wrongdoing.

EU officials say the Bahamas trips and Dalli's failure to declare them might have broken the code of conduct governing commissioners.

"Commissioners may not engage in any other professional activity, whether gainful or not. Unpaid courses given from time to time ... are the only outside activities that are permitted, and do not have to be declared," the code of conduct states.

The widening of the probe, which is expected to take several months, makes it the most high-profile corruption scandal to hit the European Union since 1999, when all 20 commissioners resigned following accusations of corruption and financial mismanagement. The European Court of Justice later found commissioner Edith Cresson guilty of breaching her obligations.

CASH FOR INFLUENCE ALLEGATION

Dalli, a former finance minister from the Mediterranean island of Malta, was forced to quit as health commissioner last October after his associate Silvio Zammit was accused of asking for 60 million euros ($83 million) from Swedish Match in return for Dalli's help in influencing EU tobacco law.

Swedish Match has said it told European Union investigators as soon as it became aware of the suspected bribery.

OLAF said it had found "unambiguous and converging circumstantial pieces of evidence" that Dalli knew of the bribery attempt by Zammit, a part-time circus promoter and pizzeria owner who says he has known Dalli for 30 years. It passed its findings to Maltese investigating authorities, who concluded they did not have enough evidence to charge Dalli.

Dalli has consistently denied knowledge of the alleged bribery, saying he was the victim of an attempt by the tobacco industry and former Commission colleagues to block tough anti-tobacco proposals that he was due to announce. He is suing the Commission for wrongful dismissal in the European courts.

Zammit, who also denies any wrongdoing, is currently on trial in Malta for bribery and trading in influence.

He previously worked as Dalli's political canvasser and helped to organize undeclared meetings in Malta between the commissioner and representatives of the tobacco industry.

OLAF reopened the investigation into Dalli last month after it emerged he had made at least two and possibly four undeclared trips to the Bahamas in the months before his resignation.

In an interview with Reuters in July, Dalli said the trips were to discuss a humanitarian project in Africa, potentially in Ghana and Ethiopia, expected to be worth "hundreds of millions" of dollars, for which he was providing free advice.

($1 = 0.7256 euros)

(Editing by Will Waterman)

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