Jail sentence for Austrian ex-MEP caught in sting
(VIENNA) - An Austrian former member of the European Parliament was sentenced Monday to four years in prison for corruption after being secretly filmed offering to change EU legislation for money.
Ernst Strasser, who is also a former Austrian interior minister, was recorded in 2010 by undercover British reporters saying he charged 100,000 euros ($134,000) per year for his lobbying services.
Presiding judge Georg Olschak said he did not believe Strasser's line of defence that he had thought the journalists, who were posing as employees of a fake firm, were secret agents whom Strasser had wanted to expose.
"That is probably one of the most outlandish things I have heard in my 20-year career," Olschak told a packed Vienna courtroom. "You won't find a single court in Austria to believe that argument."
The judge said it had been established "without a doubt" that Strasser took the journalists to be lobbyists and had asked for "100,000 euros per year in return for influencing the legislative process in the European Parliament."
Strasser, 56, who resigned as a European MP in 2011, sat stony-faced as the verdict -- for four years without the possibility of parole -- was delivered. His lawyer Thomas Kralik said he would appeal.
Sunday Times journalists Claire Newell and Jonathan Calvert secretly filmed a string of meetings with Strasser, tapes of which were made available to the Vienna court and were also handed to the European Parliament.
Strasser from the start "described himself as a lobbyist" and "said he charged clients 70,000 euros and ... in November (2010) changed this to 100,000 euros," Calvert testified by video link from London on Monday.
One of the meetings took place in a fake London office for their "pretend lobbying firm" Bergman and Lynch, staffed by other Sunday Times journalists "to make it look busy", Newell told the court, also via video link.
"It is a breach of European Parliament rules to charge money to change legislation. We felt we had enough material to expose that," Newell said.
The two reporters said they asked Strasser to alter EU directives that were being drawn up on waste management and on financial services.
Calvert said Strasser told them that he had been too late to change the waste legislation but that for the latter "he had achieved a better result than we had asked for."
The undercover operation aimed at exposing corruption in Brussels also ensnared three other MEPs: Romania's Adrian Severin, Slovenia's Zoran Thaler and Pablo Zalba from Spain.
"Of course I am a lobbyist," one of the videos shows Strasser saying, adding that combining such activities with being an MEP "works very well."
He added: "But the fee, my clients pay me for a year 100,000 euros, yes. I now have five, hopefully from tomorrow six clients ... You will be the seventh."
"In the history of the Austrian Second Republic there are few people who have damaged the standing of the Republic as much as you," the judge said.