EU whistleblower now counts lightbulbs

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The Independent Online
THE WHISTLEBLOWER whose evidence about corruption and mismanagement in the European Commission led to the downfall of its president, Jacques Santer, has been given a new job - counting light-bulbs, buying paint and arranging the repair of broken heating vents in Brussels offices.

Paul van Buitenen exposed widespread irregularities in EU finances while he was working as an official auditor in the commission, including the fact that a dentist friend of the French Commissioner Edith Cresson was running a lucrative EU youth-training programme.

The commission is privately furious at Mr van Buitenen's action in highlighting its shortcomings and, in retaliation, has moved him to "one of the most boring jobs in the EU". In addition, it is now seeking to "gag" him from making any further revelations.

A highly qualified and experienced accountant, who previously had access to the commission's most sensitive files, Mr van Buitenen has been stunned to discover that his new responsibilities include paying for carpet repairs and deciding whether the commission can afford to buy new lampshades.

He had asked to be made a member of the new Brussels anti-fraud unit, backed by Tony Blair, designed to root out corruption. But the commission refused and has moved him to its rather less glamorous Buildings Directorate instead.

The former auditor has found his "redeployment" so upsetting that he has been sent home to seek peace and quiet by the commission's own doctors.

But the commission has since bombarded his home with written warnings, sent by courier, registered post and ordinary mail.

It apparently fears that Mr van Buitenen may give more inside evidence to the panel of "wise men" preparing a second report on fraud and mismanagement within the EU.

Mr van Buitenen has written to friends complaining that his bosses will not leave him alone. The commission warnings quote staff rules dealing with confidentiality and, he has told friends, are designed to prevent him from talking about the irregularities he discovered.

It wants him to return a clutch of damning files. Administrators have told him not to communicate with the press, the European Court of Auditors or the European Parliament, which first exposed the "sleaze".

Mr van Buitenen is still subject to disciplinary charges by the commission for leaking the damning evidence to MEPs.

The commission insists that his new job "coincides with his previous grade". But insiders admit that the building job will not give him access to any more sensitive information.

"He has been reintegrated in a different directorate. In the the job before, he was working in DG20, the part of the commission that deals with financial control," said a spokesman. "He is now in DG9, which deals with buildings. He is working in an accounting capacity."

Mr van Buitenen's evidence led to the dramatic resignation en masse of all 20 commissioners earlier this year. A new commission is currently being appointed and several current commissioners, including Mme Cresson, will not be returning to their jobs. The new commission will be headed by Romano Prodi, the former Italian premier, who has pledged to stamp out sleaze and favouritism.

A second report, expected in September, will highlight irregularities in the granting of multi-million pound contracts. It will go into more detail about financial links between commissioners and beneficiaries of huge building contracts.

The so-called "wise men", appointed by the commission and European Parliament, are also examining evidence of "overspend" - where the commission pays too much for services which could have been obtained for less elsewhere.