BRUSSELS — A former member of the European Parliament from Italy is refusing to pay back more than a quarter of a million euros of public money, years after fraud-busters found he had broken EU rules by paying it to a company that never did real work and was owned by someone he became romantically involved with.
Crescenzio Rivellini, an MEP who sat with the center-right European People’s Party from 2009 to 2014, was the subject of an investigation by the EU’s anti-fraud office, also known as OLAF. It found he had funneled tens of thousands of euros from his office budget to a company owned by Bianca Maria D’Angelo, who was his parliamentary assistant when the contract was signed and later became his partner. Her ownership was not declared to Parliament and thus breached the institution’s conflict-of-interest rules, according to OLAF.
Rivellini has sought for years to avoid paying the money back by refusing to acknowledge his debts, most recently launching a lawsuit against the Parliament.
This latest step comes after senior MEPs unanimously dismissed an earlier appeal he lodged against the Parliament during a closed-door meeting in April this year.
“I am in charge … to notify you of the corresponding debit note for an amount receivable of €252,321,38 that Parliament holds against you for amounts unduly paid … under the parliamentary assistance allowance to which you were entitled,” wrote Parliament’s Director General for Finances Didier Klethi to Rivellini in a letter in January 2022, seen by POLITICO.
When Rivellini still didn’t start paying this back, the Parliament’s secretive Bureau, which handles internal institutional affairs, discussed Rivellini’s case in April.
According to OLAF’s confidential “final report,” dated August 2019 and also seen by POLITICO, his allocation of the money involved evidence of “irregularity or fraud.”
Its investigation found that Rivellini spent almost €32,000 on hiring his parliamentary assistant D’Angelo for five months in 2009; investigators found “no evidence” she worked for him or even moved to Brussels, establishing she was “fictitiously employed.”
D’Angelo — who did not respond to multiple requests to comment — is currently the chair of the committee on transparency at Naples city council.
While Rivellini employed D’Angelo, he awarded a lucrative public contract to a company she owned called Congressi e Comunicazione ostensibly to provide help in organizing events and running his election campaign, according to OLAF’s report.
OLAF interviewed both Rivellini and D’Angelo in 2018, and carried out an “on-the-spot check” at the company’s address in Naples that same year.
It found no evidence that the company provided any services to the MEP.
Rivellini “was in conflict of interest” when he awarded a public contract to a company owned by his accredited assistant, the OLAF report said. A spokesperson for the European Parliament confirmed that the lucrative contracts Rivellini awarded to D’Angelo while she was his assistant breached Parliament’s rules.
The MEP must “ensure that outside activities and standing for election do not interfere with the performance by assistants of their duties or run counter to the financial interests of the Union,” according to the EU assembly’s code of conduct.
After D’Angelo was no longer employed as a parliamentary assistant, Rivellini continued to award contracts to her company, totaling €182,000.
The pair told OLAF they became romantically involved in 2010, suggesting they were not together when Rivellini first hired her as an assistant. But they renewed the company’s contract in 2010, when the pair “were already in a relationship,” OLAF’s report pointed out.
OLAF, which began investigating in 2017, calculated the amount of money owed to the EU institution as €213,709.95. But the Parliament found other outstanding debts after its own internal audit, which it began in 2020 and finalized in 2021, and bumped that figure up to €252,321.38.
Rivellini in August filed a lawsuit against the Parliament at the General Court of the European Union — the EU’s lower court, which settles disputes between individuals and EU institutions — challenging its request to get the funds back. The case is still in its early stages, and no information on it is publicly available yet.
Gianfranco Oliviero, a lawyer for Rivellini, wrote to POLITICO: “My client has been a simple citizen for almost 10 years, he doesn’t hold public and/or institutional office and would like to enjoy his right to privacy.”
The lawyer confirmed that Rivellini is involved in a “proceeding which later led to a civil suit.”
When he was an EU lawmaker, Rivellini was a member of the chamber’s budgetary control committee that keeps tabs on the use of EU money.
Rivellini’s lawsuit comes after years in which he has refused to cooperate with the Parliament’s attempts to recoup the money from him — and benefited from the opaque nature of the Parliament’s procedures to keep his debts secret.
The January 2022 letter from the Parliament’s director of finances told Rivellini to pay back that larger figure, warning that it would increase with interest if he failed to pay it back by a deadline in March.
This did not happen and the Bureau — a powerful but secretive body of senior MEPs that handles internal matters, including rules governing parliamentarians, hiring staff and acquiring properties — discussed his case at a meeting in April.
Ahead of this meeting, the Parliament handled the documents relating to his case, including the OLAF report, so carefully that they were only handed over to MEPs in envelopes and via emails locked with a password.
This is standard procedure for the Bureau. The meeting on Rivellini was held doubly in camera, with everyone except the MEPs and very senior officials told to leave the room. The public minutes refer only to a “Mr. R.”
At the meeting, the EU lawmakers unanimously rejected Rivellini’s appeal of the Parliament’s move to recover the funds from him, as first requested by the EU assembly’s secretary general in October 2021.
The Parliament has also begun withholding part of his pension.
The EU Parliament’s press services declined to remark on the topic, saying: “We cannot comment on individual cases.”
But the press services explained that “failing voluntary payment of debit notes, Parliament pursues effective recovery by any means offered by the law,” pointing to the EU’s financial regulation.
In its 2019 annual report, OLAF said that “failure to correctly declare expenditure is one particular trend” the fraud-busters were noticing. It also mentioned a case in which the partner of an unnamed former lawmaker “provided services to the MEP through a company she owned.”
“OLAF recommended to the Parliament that it recover more than €200,000 from the MEP and his partner, corresponding to the amount paid to the assistant and invoiced by the company. OLAF also recommended that disciplinary proceedings should be initiated,” the report read.
Asked whether the case referred to Rivellini, OLAF’s press office said it does not disclose the identities of people under investigation “as a general rule.”
“Disclosing information of this type could prejudice investigations, the follow-up given to OLAF’s recommendations by the competent authorities or harm the procedural rights of persons involved, in particular the presumption of innocence of natural and legal persons under investigation,” the OLAF press office wrote.
Elisa Braun contributed reporting.