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EU staff investigations
Internal investigation leads to judicial proceedings and financial recovery
OLAF received information from an EU institution that one of its members had been filing claims for the reimbursement of his travel expenses based on supporting documents that seemed to have been manipulated.
OLAF opened an internal investigation and analysed the reimbursement claims. Two on-the-spot checks were carried out in travel agencies that had provided travel services to the member. The aim was to compare the tickets that the member had submitted to his institution as supporting documents with the documentation stored by the travel-service providers.
OLAF established that the ticket receipts had been forged with help from an employee of one of the travel agencies. This enabled the member to claim and receive reimbursement for travel that was higher than the costs actually incurred. It was established that between October 2006 and July 2013, over EUR 182 000 was wrongly refunded to this member.
The institution ceased reimbursement to this member, following OLAF’s suggestion for precautionary measures, thus preventing the unjustified payment of a further EUR 50 000. Following OLAF’s judicial recommendations, the relevant national judicial authorities informed OLAF in July 2014 that a criminal investigation was in progress. OLAF also recommended that the institution launch procedures to recover the undue payments. In November 2014, the institution informed OLAF that the full amount had been recovered. The institution also introduced improved control mechanisms to mitigate the risk of future damage to the EU budget.
Embezzlement of research funding
Another investigation led to OLAF putting an end to an intricate fraud scheme through which more than EUR 1.4 million worth of European Union funds, meant for emergency response hovercraft prototypes, had been misappropriated.
OLAF uncovered the fraud pattern as part of its investigation into alleged irregularities in a Research and Innovation project granted to a European consortium. The Italian-led consortium, with partners in France, Romania and the United Kingdom, was tasked with creating two hovercraft prototypes to be used as emergency nautical vehicles able to reach remote areas in case of environmental accidents. During on-the-spot checks performed in Italy by OLAF and the Italian Guardia di Finanza, OLAF discovered various disassembled components of one hovercraft, as well as another hovercraft which was completed after the deadline of the project. It became evident that, in order to obtain the EU funds, the Italian partners had falsely attested to the existence of the required structural and economic conditions to carry out the project.
Investigative activities carried out by OLAF in the UK revealed that the British partner only existed on paper and that the company was in fact created and owned by the same Italian partners. To simulate the actual development of the project and to divert funds, fictitious costs had also been recorded. In practice, once the EU funds were obtained, the Italian grantees used accounting artifices to syphon off money, forging documents attesting false expenses.
A thorough analysis of more than 12 000 financial transactions and payments made in the project showed that part of the EU funds received by the Italian and UK partners had been used to pay off a mortgage on a castle facing foreclosure. OLAF concluded its investigation in 2017 with two judicial recommendations - to the Public Prosecutor’s Office of Genoa and to the City of London Police in the UK – and a financial recommendation to the Directorate- General for Research and Innovation of the European Commission to recover the defrauded funds. The Italian authorities are already following up on OLAF’s recommendations and investigating the persons concerned for embezzlement and fraud against the EU, false accounting, fraudulent bankruptcy and fraudulent statements.
Abuse of experts’ CVs in an EU-funded African project
OLAF opened an investigation after it had received information from an EU delegation in an African country, alleging irregularities in a procurement procedure. The information concerned a service contract assigned to an EU-based company responsible for the selection of experts to direct and supervise roadworks financed by the EU budget.
OLAF carried out checks and found that the EU-based company had systematically altered the CVs of its experts, to ensure that they would meet the award criteria. OLAF also found that controls were deficient. There had been a high turnover of experts and their qualifications and competences were not checked as required. There was a general failure to ensure continuity.
By examining other contracts of the same European company in another three African countries, the same modus operandi was discovered, including the substitution of highly qualified experts with unqualified last-minute replacements.
OLAF made recommendations for the recovery of the amounts, by means of financial damages and penalties of up to 10 % of the contract, amounting to a total of EUR 3 million. OLAF also recommended the exclusion of the contractor from EU funding for a period of time and that databases of experienced experts in projects financed by EU funds should be set up and that compulsory financial sanctions should be applied in such cases.
Putting an end to the evasion of anti-dumping duties on solar panels
In 2017 OLAF investigated a major case involving the evasion of anti-dumping and countervailing duties imposed on solar panels originating in, or consigned from, the People’s Republic of China. It was alleged that solar panels were incorrectly declared on importation into the European Union as being of Taiwanese origin. In the framework of this investigation, OLAF, in cooperation with representatives of the Dutch and French customs agencies and the competent Taiwanese authorities, carried out joint enquiries in Taiwan. Further checks took place in Antwerp, in cooperation with Belgian customs.
OLAF collected and analysed transhipment data, EU import data, as well as other documents, while also conducting five company visits of Taiwanese exporters/consignors and visits to eleven shipping agents in Belgium and Taiwan. It was revealed that approximately 2500 container loads of Chinese solar panels had been transhipped via Taiwan to the EU. OLAF discovered that these consignments of solar panels imported into the European Union were not actually of Taiwanese origin, as declared. The solar panels were shipped from solar panel producers in the People’s Republic of China to the Free Zone in Taiwan, where the solar panels were loaded into other containers and shipped to the EU with new documents claiming Taiwanese origin. It was established that, in reality, the goods came from the People’s Republic of China and therefore anti-dumping and countervailing duties were applicable. As a result, OLAF issued a financial recommendation amounting to EUR 135 million.
OLAF coordinates efforts to fight tobacco smuggling across the EU and in non-EU countries
For several years, OLAF had investigated suspicious activities that led to the discovery of a major cross-Europe cigarette smuggling network. OLAF cooperated in the criminal investigations, jointly organised by the competent Italian and German authorities.
As part of this work, OLAF organised a coordination meeting in autumn 2013 involving German and Italian judicial and law enforcement authorities, and worked with Belgium, Lithuania, Hungary, Poland, Romania and Slovakia, as well as Moldova and Ukraine. The smuggling network produced cigarettes in the EU. It then simulated fictitious exports or carried out real exports to non-EU countries and subsequently smuggled the cigarettes back into the EU, thus avoiding customs duties and taxes.
In November 2014, the network was dismantled through joint work by the Italian Agenzia delle Dogane and Guardia di Finanza and the German Zollkriminalamt Köln and Zollfahndungsamt Berlin. Prosecutors in Turin and Frankfurt/Oder also coordinated a search by law enforcement officials of an ostensibly legitimate cigarette factory that produced cigarettes destined in part for the illegal market. Investigations are continuing. More than 10 people have already been arrested. The estimated damage to the Italian budget alone is in excess of EUR 90 million. The final figures are likely to be much higher.
OLAF brings significant added value to operations like these, where contraband networks operate across borders and can only be countered by coordinated EU-wide efforts.