Patten contracts queried as MEPs investigate scandal

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The Independent Online

Chris Patten, the European Commissioner for external relations, became the latest senior figure to be drawn into an EU financial scandal yesterday, after MEPs queried contracts worth more than €38m (£26m) awarded by his department.

Mr Patten has been challenged to explain to an influential committee of Euro MPs how the lucrative work was awarded to a company which is now at the heart of a fraud investigation.

Yesterday's development is the latest twist in the scandal over Eurostat, the EU's Luxembourg-based statistical office. A series of investigations have revealed how Eurostat colluded with companies, fixed bogus or inflated contracts and channelled cash into unofficial bank accounts, using some of it to fund staff perks.

The new questions surfaced in a report from the Internal Audit Service and focused on contracts awarded, without any open tendering procedure, to a firm called CESD. This is one of the companies whose contracts with the commission have been ended following investigations into its incestuous relationship with Eurostat.

Since the 1990s, eight contracts worth a total of €38.6m were awarded by the European Commission's aid agency, Aidco, to CESD, to help countries from the former Soviet Union to build up their own statistical agencies. Some work dates from after 1999, when the new commission came into office. The internal auditors note "that Eurostat's senior management" intended to keep using the firm "as sole contractor for technical assistance and persuaded Aidco to do the same". The parliament's budgetary control committee will now draw up a list of European Commissioners it wants to call, and Mr Patten's name is expected to be included.

Mr Patten's office insisted yesterday it had acted properly. A spokeswoman argued: "The commission has abided by the rules which allow for contracts to be granted without open tendering." She added that the commission was advised "in several cases", that CESD "was the only possible option". Nevertheless, the claims will be an embarrassment for Mr Patten, who has been a staunch defender of the commission's record.

Fraud investigators are not thought to be overly concerned about the latest allegations.