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Scandal-hit EU Parliament vows 'zero tolerance' on graft

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(BRUSSELS) - The head of the scandal-hit European Parliament on Thursday vowed "zero tolerance" on corruption as detectives probed bribery and fraud allegations against MEPs.

"There should be zero tolerance for any form of corruption," parliament president Jerzy Buzek said of a submission to clean up the assembly, seen by AFP, that secured "broad agreement" from party leaders at urgent talks in Brussels.

The 736-seat parliament has been plunged into turmoil in recent weeks over a "cash for laws" scandal involving European business interests. The atmosphere deteriorated further with separate reports of massive expenses fraud.

Hella Ranner, a 59-year-old Austrian conservative, became the latest to quit her seat this week amid allegations she planned to repay a seven-million-euro ($9.8-million) business debt using funds reserved for office running costs.

A trio of lawmakers from Austria, Romania and Slovenia are already facing probes at home and in Brussels after a sting by Britain's Sunday Times newspaper showed them agreeing to take bribes of up to 100,000 euros ($140,000).

In Brussels, guards were stationed outside the locked offices of the disgraced MEPs on Thursday awaiting the arrival of police from the three countries to search computers and paper files.

Anti-corruption prosecutors in Austria said they are in contact with the parliament and the EU's European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF) over how investigations will be conducted.

The latest cases came little over a week after English Conservative ex-MEP Den Dover was ordered by the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg to repay some 400,000 euros.

On Thursday, a former Scottish member of the British parliament was jailed for 16 months over fake expenses claims unearthed in 2009 worth £8,385 (9,500 euros, $13,450). Jim Devine became the third former lawmaker there to be sentenced to time behind bars.

In Brussels, Buzek said he wants to introduce a "mandatory register of lobbyists" with the EU's executive commission.

Ultimately, the parliament wants a new code of conduct to apply across all European Union institutions, an official adding that powerful member states with vested interests in key business sectors must also comply with a fully transparent lobbying code.

In the interim, Buzek wants some 5,000 accredited lobbyists to "register on a daily basis."

Some 10,000 people are said to pass through parliament buildings every working day.

Launching his reform offensive, former Polish prime minister Buzek warned in his submission that "any actual or potential conflict of interest must be declared."

"Tougher sanctions will need to be introduced," he underlined.

Criticism by anti-corruption campaigners has grown over members holding powerful outside positions, for example German MEP Elmar Brok, who heads up parliamentary relations with the United States while also being an adviser to media giant Bertelsmann.

"Members who advocate any cause or interest in which they have a direct financial interest (or an anticipated interest) must make this fact known clearly and unequivocally in writing," underlined Buzek, although he was not referring specifically to Brok.

He said members with "second jobs... should be required to update their existing declaration of interests much more regularly than once a year -- ideally within a maximum of one month of any change in their circumstances."

Party chiefs "unanimously" agreed "to overhaul rules governing the access and behaviour of lobbyists and to tighten the code of conduct," a parliamentary statement said.

Members piloting bills through parliament would also be required to publish a "legislative footprint," listing all input by or involvement with lobbyists.

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