Friday, 06. December 2013
14. 01. 13. - 16:00
Austrian police are investigating an attempt to intimidate two British journalists from giving evidence in an anticorruption trial.
A fake fax was sent to a lawyer representing the British pair alleging that they were under investigation for illegal methods while working for the Sunday Times insight team.
Jonathan Calvert and Claire Newell were due to give evidence by live video link later today (MON) in the case of the former Austrian interior minister and member of the European Parliament Ernst Strasser, 56, who is one of the MEPs accused of making changes in EU law in exchange for cash.
The pair were posing as lobbyists acting on behalf of hedge fund managers and offered Strasser a 100,000 annual advisor salary to help make the changes they saidf they needed - and they recorded their discussions using a hidden camera – something which is illegal in Austria.
The anonymous and undated fax sent to the lawyers dealing with the case in England on behalf of the Sunday Times claimed that the pair were the subject of a police investigation as a result of the recording.
Strasser denied having anything to do with the facts but was also accused of underhand tactics after a former assistant of his claimed she had not had anything to do with him since he resigned when the Sunday Times published its report.
But police had secretly taped his conversations and it was revealed that the woman – not named – and actually had numerous phone calls and exchanged text messages with Strasser - after which her story had changed to include the fact that he had been telling the truth in his belief that the journalists was secret agents. Before the conversations she had never mentioned this theory. The woman is now facing allegations of lying under oath.
Strasser was one of a number of MEPs secretely filmed as part of the undercover investigation in which they set up a fake lobbying firm, London based Bergman & Lynch, and offered Strasser an annual fee of 100,000 Euros for his help.
The court heard that the Sunday Times had been against allowing the pair to be seen in court as it would make it hard for them to carry out investigative work in the future, and in the end it was accepted they could use a video linkup in which the pair to be hidden from the public and other journalists.
Given that Calvert had been in clear view in the footage the pair secretly filmed, apparently from a camera hidden somewhere on Newell, who now works for the rival Telegraph newspaper, the move was criticised by Austrian media who said it seemed pointless.
Edited versions of the interview were posted on You Tube but the full unedited version in which Calvert was clearly seen was shown in open court for all to see.
Mr Strasser, of the conservative Austrian People's Party (ÖVP), resigned as an MEP in March 2011 saying he planned to concentrate on proving his innocence on charges he asked for an annual payment in exchange for influencing EU legislation in the European Parliament.
Strasser, who faces up to 10 years in jail if found guilty when the case ends today, claims that he had realised at the start that the lobbyists were fake - but believed they were in fact secret agents working for the Americans, and he had played along in order to catch them out.
But his Austrian party colleague and the man who is the vice president of the European Parliament, Othmar Karas, said it seemed unlikely.
He said he had rarely seen an MEP put so much effort into the attempt to get changes made to the law, involving changes to investment legislation that would have benefited hedge funds.
Strasser claimed he had only made the proposal for new wording not to see it made into law, but simply to go along with the fake lobbyists, but Karas rejected this.
He said: "There was no contact or email beforehand saying that the changes he requested should not be introduced. Indeed, I have never experienced from an MP such an attempt to have a direct influence on a law."
Asked what that involved, he said there had been a total of eight phone calls and four emails between his office and that of Strasser about the subject.
He added: "It was certainly not for me clear that it was to do with an attempt to introduce something that was not eventually to become accepted on the statute books."
He also added that he had been left with a "strange feeling" about the motivation of Strasser with his request, and said that the first time he had heard Strasser believed it was secret agents was when he read it in the media – even though they are both in the ÖVP.
Strasser claimed in court that he had been warned by Austrian agents that he was under observation from American agents and added that his office had been broken into and a laptop stolen. He suspected the Americans had spied on him when he did a house swap with an American family, and he alleged that Rupert Murdoch, the Sunday Times owner, had been connected with "American Interests" that wanted to push the EU in a certain direction. But he also said Russian and French secrert services were also observing him.
The editor-in-chief of the Austrian daily newspaper the OÖNachrichten which is the local paper for Strasser is one of those watching the case with interest. Gerald Mandlbauer faces a libel case from Strasser after he wrote an editorial in which he commented that politicians needed to set themselves moral standards as well as political standards.
He said: "The investigation by the Sunday Times team was the catalyst that led to the discovery of a large number of similar political scandals here in Austria.
"Whatever the results of the criminal trial, I stand by my comments that politicians should not simply operate to the letter of the law, but should also have a moral obligation. Even if he is acquitted of charges and I lose the libel case, I stand by my comments – because I know my readers feel the same.
"The Sunday Times investigation did lead to a lot of unpleasant discoveries in the political landscape here. But at the same time, it has allowed us to clear out the stall of a lot of mess, and hopefully we will have a better standard in the future."
He added that, ironically, the Sunday Times investigation that included a video of the meetings with the minister would not have been possible in Austria because it was illegal to film anybody in secret.
He said: "In this case the British journalists really did a good job."
Three other MEPs were named in the Sunday Times "sting" operation: Romania's Adrian Severin, Slovenia's Zoran Thaler and Spain's Pablo Zalba.
They all denied wrongdoing. Mr Thaler resigned and Mr Severin was expelled from the centre-left Socialists and Democrats (S&D) bloc, but remains an independent MEP. Pablo Zalba also remains an MEP in Spain's centre-right Popular Party (PP).
In June 2011 the EU anti-fraud agency Olaf said it had found no evidence of fraud on the part of Mr Zalba and closed its investigation into him.
The case against Strasser was expected to end today but was extended so a new video can be viewed as evidence.
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