Austrian EU lawmaker investigated over "elephant" expenses

BRUSSELS Fri Feb 1, 2013 11:10am EST

Austrian candidate Hans-Peter Martin gestures next to the top candidate of the Austrian Socialist party (SPOe) Hannes Swoboda and the top candidate of the Austrian peoples party (OeVP) Ernst Strasser (L-R) during a TV show for the European parliament elections in Vienna June 7, 2009. REUTERS/Dominic Ebenbichler

Austrian candidate Hans-Peter Martin gestures next to the top candidate of the Austrian Socialist party (SPOe) Hannes Swoboda and the top candidate of the Austrian peoples party (OeVP) Ernst Strasser (L-R) during a TV show for the European parliament elections in Vienna June 7, 2009.

Credit: Reuters/Dominic Ebenbichler

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - An Austrian member of the European Parliament is under investigation over suspect expenses claims totalling 1.3 million euros, including one item listed as "elephant".

In a request to the European Parliament to waive Hans-Peter Martin's immunity, the Vienna prosecutor's office said it suspected the independent MEP of embezzling public funds and making money "illicitly for himself or a third party by fraudulent means".

"It is suspected that, by using money for the reimbursement of election campaign costs for purposes other than those intended, Dr Hans-Peter Martin has committed crimes of misuse of funding ... and embezzlement," said the request, made last May and seen by Reuters.

Martin, 55, says the allegations are an invention by adversaries upset by his efforts to expose the parliament's waste of public funds.

"I see a direct link between the fact that I have made these things public and now false allegations being leaked to the press," Martin told Reuters last week.

Asked about some of the details and figures set out by the prosecutor, Martin said they were accurate but that no embezzlement was involved.

The prosecutor's request details a series of suspect or unexplained expenses that were claimed either in Austria or via the European Parliament.

Among them is a payment of 832,800 euros for "public relations work" that the prosecutor says was made to "businessmen who are friends of Dr Hans-Peter Martin, even though no (equivalent) services were provided".

Another concerns the employment of a parliamentary assistant at a cost of 67,343 euros. The prosecutor said it suspected the individual "never actually carried out work" for Martin in connection with his parliamentary activities.

One claim for 2,200 euros was identified in accounts as being for an "elephant".

Martin says he in fact meant to claim for books about Auschwitz from an Austrian publisher called "Ephelant". The publisher does offer such a book, priced at 22 euros. (www.ephelant-verlag.at/)

Parliament's legal affairs committee will meet this month to discuss Martin's immunity, a spokesman said. The assembly had already suspended Martin's immunity once at prosecutors' request, in September 2011.

Martin, a former journalist who has sat in the European Parliament since 1999, said he looked forward to clearing his name. "It if were up to me there would be no immunity in the first place," he said.

(Reporting By Claire Davenport; Editing by Luke Baker and Kevin Liffey)