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European Parliament offices sealed in corruption probe

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(BRUSSELS) - Guards blocked the sealed offices Tuesday of disgraced MEPs after a fresh resignation in a string of corruption scandals engulfing the European Parliament.

Hella Ranner, 59, an Austrian conservative, became the latest to quit after a newspaper report there alleged she planned to pay back a seven-million-euro ($9.8-million) business debt using expenses meant for staff and office running costs.

She threw in the towel as security guards in the Brussels parliament buildings prevented access to offices and files of a trio of lawmakers already facing probes after a sting by Britain's Sunday Times newspaper showed them agreeing to take bribes of up to 100,000 euros ($140,000).

The flood of cases comes little over a week after British ex-Conservative MEP Den Dover was ordered by the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg to repay sums four times that amount -- in a judgment actually reduced on appeal.

As the scandals mounted, sources at two party formations -- Socialists and Greens -- said concrete proposals on how radically to overhaul ethics rules would be brought forward next week, when the parliament sits in Strasbourg, France.

Another parliament source said there would "no doubt" be a need to cut out on-site access to lobbyists or pressure groups, some 5,000 of whom have accreditation, as well as introducing a new "code of conduct."

That could seek to restrict lawmakers' rights to retain paid business interests. One well-known German MEP for instance is also an adviser to German media giant Bertelsmann.

The giant chamber is home to 736 members but opens its doors to some 10,000 people every working day.

"The timing is very bad, it gives the impression there is a snowball effect under way," a parliament official told AFP of the Ranner development, on condition his identity be withheld.

"It looks as if there was intent to mis-use part of the office allowance to pay back debts," he said of Ranner's case.

"If she has mis-spent any money, the parliament will demand it is paid back, as with Dover."

Austrian daily Kurier published a letter from Ranner's lawyer Tuesday in which some 4,000 euros per month of expenses were presented as proof of her ability to repay her debt -- in violation of EU parliament rules.

The parliament has tried to flex new political muscle under the European Union's 15-month-old Lisbon Treaty, only to fall foul of states that want to clip its wings. And now come the revelations from an eight-month investigation by journalists posing as lobbyists and offering cash for amendments to legislation to be tabled.

Ranner's party colleague from Austria, Ernst Strasser, was forced to step down following the allegations of corruption, alongside Slovenian counterpart Zoran Thaler.

Sources told AFP that detectives are expected soon in Brussels to step up criminal enquiries.

Austrian anti-corruption prosecutors said Tuesday they had already questioned Strasser and seized documents and computers.

A third target, Romanian deputy Adrian Severin, has refused to quit his seat denying he has broken any law, and Romania has yet to indicate to the parliament if it intends to mount an on-site probe.

A fourth, Spain's Pablo Zalba Bidegain, denies any wrongdoing, saying he rejected the bribery attempt.

The European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF) has criticised parliament after it was refused access to files.

Parliament president Jerzy Buzek has told Austria, Romania and Slovenia the parliament is prepared to cooperate with enquiries.

"The right to investigate judicial or criminal matters only lies with member states' judicial or criminal authorities," the parliament official said.

The offices are "sealed in order to protect the physical evidence," with guards stationed at their entrance to ensure they remain "in exactly the same condition" when investigators arrive, he added.

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