Ex-OLAF chief gets suspended sentence for illegally taping witnesses in John Dalli snus probe

A Belgian judge sentences former OLAF head Giovanni Kessler to a one-year suspended prison sentence after illegally recording witnesses in John Dalli investigation

Giovanni Kessler (left) and John Dalli
Giovanni Kessler (left) and John Dalli

Former EU anti-fraud chief Giovanni Kessler received a one-year suspended prison sentence after a Belgian court ruled he taped witnesses surreptitiously in the John Dalli snus probe.

Kessler who left OLAF in 2017 was responsible for the investigation that led to Dalli’s resignation from European health commissioner in October 2012.

The ex-OLAF chief was probing allegations that Dalli’s aide, Silvio Zammit, had sought bribes from the tobacco industry to influence the review of legislation that banned snus, a chewable form of tobacco.

Dalli has always protested his innocence, claiming he was unaware of Zammit’s actions. After the Belgian judge delivered his ruling on Friday, Dalli described it as partial vindication.

Kessler told Brussels-based Politico he plans to appeal the ruling, insisting he always operated transparently.

In its ruling, the Belgian court said it was “concerned” by Kessler’s attitude, as he “claimed to be unaware of the existence of legislation regulating the recording of phone conversations,” even though these restrictions derive from the European Convention on Human Rights that he could not ignore given his role as chief of OLAF.

The Dalligate scandal, as it was called, erupted when Dalli was working on changes to the EU’s Tobacco Products Directive. His aide Silvio Zammit, who has since died, was accused of seeking a €60 million bribe from Swedish Match, a tobacco company, to reverse an EU ban on snus. Snus can be legally sold in Sweden but not in other EU countries.

The OLAF report resulted in Dalli’s resignation from commissioner. But while Dalli was accused of failing to disclose some meetings with tobacco lobbyists, the OLAF report found no direct link between the Maltese commissioner and the request for bribes.

Kessler contended at the time there was “unambiguous circumstantial evidence” that Dalli knew about it.

However, Kessler later ended up in the spotlight as Belgian authorities started looking into allegations that the Dalligate investigation was poorly conducted and politically motivated.

It was only in 2016 that the European Commission agreed to lift Kessler’s immunity, paving the way for Belgian prosecutors to question him over claims that he surreptitiously recorded witnesses in the case without informing all parties. Kessler’s actions constituted a crime under Belgian law.

Reacting to the Belgian court's ruling, Dalli said: "It took 11 years to finally breach the European Commission’s secrecy, although on just one part of the investigation... the truth will prevail."

Zammit had been charged by the police in Malta with bribery but the case never came to its end. The Maltese police only charged Dalli last year. The former commissioner denied the charges, which include trading in influence and attempted bribery. The case against Dalli in the Maltese courts is ongoing.