Ex-EU health chief vows to fight tobacco bribe links

Charlie Dunmore

* John Dalli says Commission head forced him to resign

* Says case followed his refusal to weaken EU tobacco laws

* New rules on hold until replacement is appointed

BRUSSELS, Oct 24 (Reuters) - The European Union's former health commissioner vowed on Wednesday to challenge the findings of an EU anti-fraud investigation linking him to bribery, which led to his resignation last week.

John Dalli resigned after the EU's anti-fraud office OLAF said he was aware of attempts by one of his associates to bribe a Swedish tobacco company in return for changes to EU tobacco legislation, and did nothing to prevent them.

Tobacco firm Swedish Match said a Maltese businessman asked the company for 60 million euros ($78 million) in order to use his links to Dalli to get him to propose an end to an EU export ban on snus, a type of snuff that is the company's main product.

A Swedish Match employee met the businessman in Malta after the latter sought contact, company spokesman Patrik Hildingsson told Reuters. The company notified the Commission of the alleged bribery attempt in May.

Dalli, who denies any knowledge of attempts to sell influence on his behalf, said he was forced to resign by European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso without seeing the details of the OLAF investigation, and was refused access to legal advice.

Under EU procedures, commissioners are required to resign at the request of the president.

``My intention is to challenge the decision of the president, to challenge the decisions of OLAF, and the way that OLAF has gone through the whole procedure,'' Dalli told a news conference in Brussels.

``This is a very serious decision that Mr Barroso took, very serious. It will damage my whole future, and it will damage the future of my family.

''So all I'm asking is to rectify this situation. It's not a question of getting your job back or not getting your job back,`` he said.

Dalli said he believed the allegations were the direct result of his tough stance on the draft EU tobacco legislation, which he said had sparked an ''onslaught`` of lobbying by the industry.

''I am treated in the way I am because I didn't succumb to any pressures to dilute the tobacco directive,`` he said.

No written resignation was ever offered by Dalli, who said his promise to step down could therefore not be considered as finalised.

But the Commission said Dalli had ceased to be a commissioner as soon as he agreed to step down.

''The oral resignation presented by Mr Dalli to the president twice during the meeting that took place last Tuesday is fully legal, and completes the process of Mr Dalli's resignation from the Commission,`` spokesman Olivier Bailly told a news briefing.


The Maltese businessman at the centre of the OLAF investigation was named by Dalli as Silvio Zammit, a restaurant owner and circus promoter who canvassed for Dalli during the 2008 Maltese general election.

OLAF and the European Commission declined to provide the name of the businessman. Zammit was identified as that individual in other media reports, which Reuters was unable to independently confirm.

Zammit organised and participated in two meetings involving Dalli and representatives of the EU tobacco industry in August 2010 and February 2012, the former commissioner said, but denied any knowledge of attempted bribery at either meeting.

''I have in fact sent a letter to Mr Zammit through my lawyer holding him responsible for any damages that I will suffer,`` Dalli said. ''He replied that he in no way has ever made any communication to anybody in my name or involved me in any way.``

Once he has seen a full copy of OLAF's investigation report, Dalli said he would take legal action against those who claimed he had knowledge of the alleged bribery attempt.

He also questioned whether OLAF had followed the correct procedures when publishing its report, alleging that the body's supervisory committee - which is supposed to pre-approve all OLAF publications - had failed to do so.

On Wednesday, a spokesman for the European Parliament said the chairman of the OLAF supervisory committee, Christiaan Timmermans, had resigned from the post, but did not specify the reason.

The Commission said the affair had forced it to postpone a draft revision of EU tobacco rules scheduled for October, which it said could include a ban on logos on all cigarette packs in a bid to deter smoking.

The legislation was one of the most sensitive issues under Dalli's former remit, which also included genetically modified crops, medical devices and animal welfare regulations.

The tobacco proposals have been put on hold until a replacement commissioner from Malta is approved by EU governments and lawmakers, which could take several months.

Malta's Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi has nominated foreign minister Tonio Borg as Dalli's replacement. ($1 = 0.7711 euros)

(Editing by Michael Roddy)