* Ex-health commissioner says innocent of corruption
* Commission President says had no choice but to tell Dalli
* Barroso draws parallel with 1999 resignation of Commission
By John O'Donnell
LUXEMBOURG, July 7 A former top European
official challenged EU Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso
in court on Monday, declaring he was unfairly forced out of his
job and maintaining his innocence in a graft scandal.
John Dalli was forced to quit as EU health commissioner last
October after his associate was accused of asking for 60 million
euros ($83 million) from a tobacco firm in return for Dalli's
help in influencing EU tobacco law.
On Monday, Dalli denied there had been anything
inappropriate in his contact with lobbyists, saying he had met
one in a hotel for 20 minutes in his swimming trunks, without
knowing who he was.
Dalli said Barroso had sacked him in what he described as an
'ambush', prompting the president of the European Commission to
defend his actions in the first such case before a European
"The facts were exaggerated," said Dalli, his hands
quivering with emotion. "The facts were manipulated. I did
But Barroso told judges that he had little choice but to
tell him to go, drawing similarities between this case and the
resignation of all 20 commissioners in 1999 under Jacques Santer
following accusations of corruption.
He described Dalli's contact with a 'bar and restaurant
owner' and with industry as 'bizarre to say the least', given
that he was responsible for new EU tobacco legislation.
"It was a matter of common sense that a prolonged
investigation would cast doubt over his integrity and that of
the entire Commission," Barroso, a trained lawyer, told judges
in Europe's second-highest court.
"He did not give a convincing explanation for this strange
contact," he said. "He had to leave."
Dalli, an accountant and former finance minister from the
Mediterranean island of Malta, was forced to quit after his
associate Silvio Zammit was accused of asking for money from
Swedish Match to influence tobacco law.
Swedish Match subsequently told EU investigators about the
In its investigation, the EU's anti-fraud office OLAF said
it had found "unambiguous and converging circumstantial pieces
of evidence" that Dalli knew of the bribery attempt by Zammit, a
part-time circus promoter and pizzeria owner who says he has
known Dalli for 30 years.
He previously worked as Dalli's political canvasser and
helped to organise meetings for him.
Dalli, however, has consistently denied knowledge of the
alleged bribery, saying he was the victim of an attempt by the
tobacco industry and former Commission colleagues to block tough
anti-tobacco proposals that he was due to announce.
Much of the current case hinges on what was said in the
meeting and whether or not it amounts to a dismissal or
(editing by Ralph Boulton)