Main suspect in EU corruption scandal strikes plea bargain

The key suspect in the corruption scandal engulfing the European parliament has struck a plea bargain with Belgian prosecutors, pledging to reveal who he bribed and which countries gave him the money to do so.

Pier Antonio Panzeri, an Italian former MEP charged with corruption, money laundering and participation in a criminal group, signed the deal on Tuesday, said the Belgian federal prosecutor’s office. He will get a reduced sentence in return for providing information about his crimes, the office said.

Three other people are also detained in Belgium on the same charges, including Eva Kaili, an MEP, and her partner Francesco Giorgi, who was Panzeri’s parliamentary aide. Kaili’s lawyer says she is innocent. Giorgi has confessed to police.

The case has convulsed Brussels and led to reform pledges in parliament. It hit the headlines after a series of police raids in December which seized more than €1.5bn in cash stuffed in suitcases and paper bags. Nearly half of that sum was found at Panzeri’s home.

An Italian court yesterday agreed to transfer Panzeri’s daughter to face similar charges in Belgium. His wife is awaiting the outcome of an appeal against the same procedure.

Panzeri, 67, has agreed to disclose the identity of all those involved in his scheme, how it was set up, how much was paid out and his “financial arrangements with other involved countries”.

Prosecutors believe Morocco and Qatar — and possibly other foreign powers — funded his bribery to influence EU policymaking, according to legal documents seen by the FT.

After failing to get re-elected in 2019, Panzeri set up an NGO, Fight Impunity. The other charged suspect detained in Belgium is Niccolò Figà-Talamanca, who registered Fight Impunity and several other NGOs at the same Brussels address. He denies wrongdoing.

The European parliament on Monday started the procedure to lift the immunity of two MEPs at the behest of the Belgian prosecutor. Andrea Cozzolino, an Italian MEP who employed Giorgi and was a friend of Panzeri, denies wrongdoing. So does Marc Tarabella, a Belgian MEP. They are from the same Socialist group as Kaili and Panzeri.

The plea bargain struck by Panzeri was based on Belgium’s so-called “pentiti” law, named after an Italian law designed to allow investigations into the mafia. A suspect has to confess and make “substantial, revealing, truthful and complete statements” regarding their own and other people’s involvement in criminal offences, according to the federal prosecutor.

Panzeri will receive a lighter sentence, which includes imprisonment, a fine and the confiscation of assets acquired through corruption, currently estimated at €1mn.

Morocco and Qatar have rejected allegations of wrongdoing.

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