John Dalli's head of cabinet testifies to warning him about reputational risk of reversing snus ban

Former European Commissioner John Dalli’s head of cabinet tells court she warned him of the reputational risk involved in reversing the EU-wide ban on smokeless tobacco

Former European Commissioner John Dalli (Photo:James Bianchi/MaltaToday)
Former European Commissioner John Dalli (Photo:James Bianchi/MaltaToday)

John Dalli’s head of cabinet has described how she warned him of the reputational risk involved in reversing the EU-wide ban on smokeless tobacco.

Joanna Darmanin was testifying on Wednesday in the criminal case against the former European Commissioner.

She told Magistrate Caroline Farrugia Frendo about a meeting she had with Dalli during which he had initially intended to challenge the EU’s ban on snus - a smokeless form of tobacco- before later allowing the ban to remain in place.

The former EU Commissioner is denying charges of trading in influence and attempted bribery, over a €60 million bribe that Dalli’s former aide, Silvio Zammit, had allegedly solicited in return for help in overturning the snus ban.

The meeting Darmanin referred to had been held in preparation for a future meeting with Paola Testori, the Director General for Health and Consumers at the European Commission in 2012. 

Over ten years had passed since the EU’s 1992 Tobacco Directive had come into force, said the witness, explaining that a need to update that directive had been felt, so as to cover more recent developments in the tobacco market. One of the issues prompting it was the fact that new tobacco products were not regulated by the old directive.

An impact assessment was drawn up in 2012 focused on the economic, social and environmental issues involved in this process, one of which was the ban on snus.

Following the impact assessment’s completion, the director-general had sent a copy of it to Commissioner Dalli, requesting assent to carry out further consultations.

The director-general was of the opinion that there should be no change to the status of snus and that the ban should remain in force

A meeting with Dalli was set up in February 2012 to see whether he had any questions he wished to raise during the scheduled meeting with Testori.

Darmanin told the court that after she explained the DG’s stance regarding the continued ban on snus, Dalli had appeared “uncomfortable,” and had made several questions.

He had argued that scientific studies showed that snus had less impact on public health than tobacco products and that there was no “level playing field” because cigarettes could still be sold in the markets which prohibited the sale of snus.

The witness said that in the course of a lively discussion, she had strongly rebutted Dalli’s arguments, pointing to studies which showed the health risks related to snus use, of which developing mouth cancer was one.

Besides this, the European Court had already ruled on the prohibition on marketing snus.

Reversing the ban would be “of great reputational risk,” to Dalli in his role as Commissioner for Public Health, Darmanin had warned.

In the following meeting with the director-general, Dalli had granted his go-ahead to the ban, she said. 

Dalli’s final position on the issue was therefore consistent with the DG’s proposal to keep the ban on snus. That position was subsequently adopted by the College of European Commissioners in December, 2012 and later, by the European Parliament in March 2013.

Cross-examined by defence lawyer Stephen Tonna Lowell, the witness confirmed that the ban had remained in force after the meeting.

But a subsequent report by the EU anti-fraud agency, OLAF, had concluded that there was a case of trading in influence in respect of Dalli’s former-aide, Silvio Zammit, and had called for further investigations into Dalli and the representative for tobacco company Swedish Match, Gayle Kimberley.

Zammit later faced questioning by OLAF officials who had come to Malta in 2012.

OLAF committee member testifies

Also testifying during the sitting was Rita Schembri, who was the Maltese member on OLAF’s supervisory committee at the time.

She told the court that Giovanni Kessler, director-general at OLAF, had informed her about the impending investigation of Commissioner John Dalli, when they had met in Brussels.

“It was difficult,” Schembri said. “As a civil servant I had to do my job or else resign.”

Upon her return to Malta, Schembri had consulted with the agreement between Malta and OLAF and had also sought the advice of the Attorney General, Peter Grech. “Let us proceed and help as they request us to,” Grech had replied.

Schembri was told to attend Zammit’s interrogation and to provide John Dalli’s call logs.

She said that Zammit, who had refused legal assistance, had been questioned on three occasions in Malta and had walked out during one of them, only returning the next day.

Zammit had rejected the suggestion that his lawyer should be present and proceeded to answer the questions. He had referred to “my boss meeting your boss,” she recalled, but when asked who his boss was, Zammit had replied, “God is my boss.”

Schembri expressed regret at the fact that Zammit hadn’t realised just how serious the situation was.

Asked by AG prosecutor Antoine Agius Bonnici whether Zammit had eventually named his “boss,” Schembri replied that she did not recall him doing so during the interrogation.

The defence suggested that Zammit had told police that the Commissioner had nothing to do with it, but Schembri disagreed. “No, he never said that to OLAF in my presence,” she said.

The last witness to testify in Wednesday’s sitting was Mario Mercieca, one of Zammit’s friends.

He told the court that Zammit had received an invitation for a meal at a restaurant in Stockholm while the two men had been abroad on holiday together, eleven years ago.

Mercieca had accompanied Zammit for the meal. ESTOC secretary general Inge Delfosse and another woman, had been seated at the same table as them and had featured in a photograph taken by Mercieca at the restaurant.

The witness described the conversation during the two-hour meal as “normal,” but when probed further, he said that the women had discussed snus with Zammit.

He explained that he had no idea who the women were at the time, and neither had he known where they worked.

AG lawyers Antoine Agius Bonnici and Anthony Vella prosecuted together with Superintendent James Grech.

Lawyers Stefano Filletti and Stephen Tonna Lowell are Dalli’s defence counsel.