John Dalli has declared there were "elements within the European Commission" who were not happy with his review of the Tobacco Products Directive, raising the spectre that he was ensnared by big tobacco in a bid to spike a law that banned all smokeless tobacco products and make cigarette packs less attractive.
In an interview with MaltaToday, Dalli - who resigned this week from Commissioner for health and consumer policy over an investigation by the EU's anti-fraud unit OLAF, which found "circumstantial evidence" that he knew of a middleman using his name to extract a bribe that could influence tobacco laws - makes a lofty accusation with regard to the European Commission's leadership.
"There are elements within the Commission who are not happy with this directive. And naturally, there is the tobacco industry... I am stating facts," Dalli said.
Dalli resigned Tuesday after EC president Jose Manuel Barroso read him a covering letter of the OLAF investigation, and according to Dalli's claims, made him resign. A Commission spokesperson has insisted that it was Dalli who voluntarily resigned, even though the OLAF report does not find any conclusive evidence of a direct link between Dalli and the bribery attempt.
Dalli also hinted at a less-than-ceremonious approach by Barroso with regards to the OLAF investigation.
"I expected Barroso to support me and at least give me the time to see what the accusations were, which I was not given. I asked for 24 hours to organise my thinking and then to seek legal advice. And he told me, 'I give you 30 minutes'. I don't think this is the way to humanly treat people and it's not the way that the civil rights of an individual should be safeguarded."
In later comments given to MaltaToday yesterday evening, Dalli revealed that he had sent a judicial letter to entrepreneur Silvio Zammit in August.
In this judicial letter Dalli warned Zammit that he would be held responsible for any reflection his actions might have on the former Commissioner's reputation.
Dalli had earlier claimed in his interview with MaltaToday that there was no acrimony on the surface between him and Barroso since his controversial comments back in 2011 in which he shared his doubts on the media coverage in Libya of the Gaddafi regime's attacks against its own people. "Since that time I have discussed many issues with the president... whenever he talked to me, he said he as very pleased with what we were doing in the Commission."
Dalli also said he had been in touch with his colleagues from the Commission, and that many were supporting him. "Many of the commissioners spoke in my favour in college the following day [Wednesday] because they know what I'm doing, and that whatever the type of accusation is being made is frivolous."
According to the OLAF investigation, Dalli could have been aware that Silvio Zammit - once a political canvasser for the former MP and minister on the tenth district - was soliciting a €60 million bribe from the company Swedish Match, which produces snus tobacco, to influence tobacco legislation and ostensibly overturn an export ban that has been in force by a court order since 1995.
Dalli has denied knowledge of any such dealings. "I categorically deny I was aware of this type of communication between Zammit and the snus industry."
Zammit, a Sliema restaurateur, did organise two meetings with Dalli: one for a tobacco lobbyist who presented the commissioner with PricewaterhouseCoopers reports while the commissioner was on holiday in August 2010; the second was with a young Maltese lawyer enquiring about the legislation on smokeless tobacco, which Dalli was seeking to ban. "These people are known to OLAF," Dalli said, without disclosing their identities.
Apart from an email dated 16 March, in which Zammit is asked how much a meeting with Dalli would cost by the secretary-general of snus lobby ESTOC (European Smokeless Tobacco Council), Dalli has now said that Zammit was in contact with ESTOC - whose chairman Patrik Hildingsson is also Swedish Match's vice-president - as recently as 3 and 4 July.
The complaint by Swedish Match to the EC and OLAF was made in late May.
"It seems that there again they made the offer of money to meet with me. This was after the investigation [started]."
Dalli met the secretary-general of ESTOC and other producers of smokeless tobacco such as Philip Morris, which sell Swedish Match products in the United States, during a public consultation meeting on 7 March to discuss the Tobacco Products Directive, which he says had been finalised from his end on the 29 February.
On 16 March it is now known that ESTOC asked Zammit to broker an informal meeting with Dalli. The former commissioner says he was informed of the OLAF investigation on 11 July, but he did not seek to find out what was happening or inform the Prime Minister of the possible investigation.
He then met OLAF investigators on 16 July for the first time and it was then that he started to try and find out what was happening.
Dalli has insisted that it was not abnormal for someone like Silvio Zammit, who is not a registered lobbyist, to set up meetings and that many commissioners hold such one-to-one meetings. But he reiterated a denial that he never had any discussions with Zammit after the 6 January 2012 meeting, on any related issue to tobacco and the snus ban.
Dalli has however surmised that the "fantastical" figure of €60 million Zammit is said to have asked from Swedish Match was part of an attempt to bait the Sliema canvasser and trip up the commissioner and his tobacco law review.
"There is a big possibility. It started with emails and later there was a recorded telephone call by Swedish Match. Why [were] conversations recorded?"
When asked about the timing of the offer, Dalli said he could not report something that he did not know about. "My point is that I was never aware that such communication took place."
Dalli said Barroso made an appointment with him five days before meeting him on Tuesday, to show him a report he had received from OLAF the day before. "I simply listened to him reading the covering letter and he said that on this, 'you must resign'. I said I shouldn't resign on this circumstantial evidence."
Dalli in fact said that, irrespective of OLAF's circumstantial evidence, he did not think this was a basis for his resignation. "The OLAF report stated there was no proof I was involved in any deal... I should have been given the opportunity to see what they are basing their accusations and conclusions upon and given the opportunity to defend myself and show where OLAF could be mistaken."
Dalli said he would not pass judgement on OLAF's investigation, however he said he was "amazed" to hear the director of OLAF Giovanni Kessler state that he was not concerned with the 16 March email sent by ESTOC to Zammit, because that happened before May.
"But I was interrogated about a lot of things that happened before May. So why not going into this type of communication that there was between ESTOC and Zammit. Was due diligence carried out on the ESTOC complaint? Was it normal to receive a complaint from an interested party in the outcome of the investigation, and take it at face value and not see whether there was ulterior motives?"
But this kind of reasoning seems to suggest that the former commissioner believes OLAF was party to the derailment to the Tobacco Products Directive.
"If you accept this type of circumstantial evidence as a basis for your decisions, then you might arrive to many different conclusions."
Dalli stood his ground in saying he could not inform OLAF of something he was not aware of in the first place, when challenged with the fact that Europeans demanded that members of the €240,000-a-year college of commissioners should resign even on circumstantial evidence such as that being alluded to by OLAF - specifically, that someone like Silvio Zammit was making repeated requests of €60 million or so to change tobacco legislation.
"I agree with the Europeans. I think I've done my job well in Europe on many issues including tobacco. Again I repeat: I could not inform on something I was not aware of."
Dalli defended his review of the Tobacco Products Directive, described by his critics as an overzealous campaign that would kill tobacco revenues with strict proposals such as covering 75% of the area of cigarette packs with pictorial warnings of the harm from tobacco, characterising flavours for tobacco, and greater control on smokeless tobacco, while also keeping the export ban on Swedish snus, which cannot be retailed outside Sweden.
"700,000 people a day die because of tobacco, and I am responsible for citizens' health. Two million people contract a chronic disease because of tobacco every year, with a heavy burden on our health systems. My responsibility in the Commission is to safeguard people's health and the sustainability of the health system. For me this was necessary to take the necessary steps to help reduce the attractiveness of tobacco, especially in the young population."
Critics said he was taking the side of big pharmaceutical companies who preferred to push their industry of nicotine replacement therapy and felt threatened by the market of electronic cigarettes. "We have proof that [snus] can be a start to smoking. Our first proposal was to ban all smokeless tobacco products. This is not about being too hard or not, we were doing our job."
Dalli hinted that his Tobacco Directive did not attract the support of everybody in the Commission, saying that after going through the impact assessments, his team was asked to stay the review until further discussions take place for the Commission's secretariat and legal services to "dilute the proposal".
A 22 August deadline was then rescheduled to the beginning of October, and again rescheduled to Monday 22 October due to a Council meeting happening earlier in the month. "It is now on ice because that it was they have decided. There is no reason why it should be on ice," Dalli said, referring to a Commission decision not to continue with the review until a new health commissioner is appointed.
Since his resignation, Dalli says many of the European commissioners in the college have spoken in his favour. "They know what I'm doing," he said. But were they themselves worried about losing their jobs with the threat of alleged lobbyists using their name to solicit fees from companies and lobbies?
"Why should they? How can you stop someone from using someone's else name in the world? So what if someone says he knows me."
Dalli is convinced that, while having his name cleared will not return him to the prestigious Brussels post (seldom are there any consolation prizes for those not found guilty of accusations of wrongdoing) Dalli says he would have the honour of not having been corrupted by big tobacco when it resorted to such measures. "It would mean that a commissioner from Malta had the courage to stand up to these mammoths."
Dalli has also sent out a strong political message, saying that up until the OLAF investigation he had decided not to contest the general elections. "We'll see the results and then I will decide on my position. I'm not ruling out anything."