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Proposed EU transport chief questioned over €1M in loans

A key member of Ursula von der Leyens proposed European Commission team did not declare two loans worth nearly €1 million to MEPs scrutinizing her appointment because she said she did not believe the rules required her to do so, according to a letter seen by POLITICO.

Legislators on the Parliaments Legal Affairs Committee (JURI), which must scrutinize the Transport Commissioner-designate Rovana Plumbs declaration of financial interests — and those of other proposed commissioners — have raised questions over whether the financial transactions could pose a potential conflict of interest.

Marie Toussaint, a member of the committee and a French Green MEP, said some commissioners-designate initially provided declarations of financial interest to the committee “that were contradictory with declarations that were presented previously” and were therefore asked for an explanation.

In the case of Plumb, for example, there was “a significant difference between the one she presented to us and the one she declared in Romania,” Toussaint said.

The questions over Plumbs financial interests could complicate her efforts to win Parliaments approval. A veteran Romanian government minister, she already faces scrutiny over a 2017 corruption case, in which she was accused of aiding the leader of her Social Democratic Party in an illicit real estate deal involving an island in the Danube River.

Some MEPs argued that Plumbs financial situation raises potential financial conflicts of interest.

She has previously denied any wrongdoing in that case and did not respond to a request for comment from POLITICO on the new financial questions.

Closed-door meeting

Ahead of their confirmation hearings, 10 members of von der Leyens proposed team were asked by the committee to provide further information on whether their assets could lead to conflicts of interest in the performance of their duties. Committee members are set to determine at a closed-doors meeting Wednesday if the extra information — in the form of letters seen by POLITICO — passes muster.

If the committee deems it insufficient, they may decide to suspend that commissioner-designates confirmation hearing. The hearings are scheduled to take place between September 30 and October 8, with the new Commission expected to take office on November 1.

Under the Parliaments rules, if the committee identifies a conflict of interest, it can draw up recommendations aimed at resolving the conflict — such as directing the nominee to renounce the financial interests in question or recommending changes to the candidates portfolio. “In more serious cases,” the committee can conclude “on the inability of Commissioner-designate to exercise his/her function.”

Ursula von der Leyen, center, with her proposed team of new European commissioners | Kenzo Tribouillard/AFP via Getty Images

In a letter addressed to Lucy Nethsingha, the chair, Plumb argued that neither loan had to be declared under the Code of Conduct for commissioners. In the letter, she confirmed that she included an €800,000 loan received in 2007 — to be paid back by 2030 — in the declaration of assets she submitted to the Romanian parliament when she was an MP.

She said she did not include it in the EU financial declaration because loans for the purchase of real estate for private purposes do not “normally” have to be declared under the Commissions code. In the case of a donation of 800,000 Romanian lei (almost €170,000) she made to her Social Democratic Party ahead of the European election this year, she said it did not generate any conflicts of interest or constitute an investment or placement on the market.

Plumb says she received the money for the donation as a loan from an individual she does not name in the submission to the Commission, although she said the lender had been registered with the Romanian parliament. According to that parliaments register of financial interests, the loan is due to be paid back over two years.

According to the Code of Conduct, commissioners-designate are obliged to declare any financial interests, including assets and liabilities, “which could be considered to be capable of giving rise to a conflict of interest. Bank accounts, specific goods or loans for the purchase of real estate for private purposes do normally not have to be declared. Investments of a value of more than EUR 10 000 have to be declared in all cases.”

Some MEPs argued that Plumbs financial situation raises potential financial conflicts of interest. Daniel Freund, a German MEP and former head of EU advocacy at NGO Transparency International, said he regards Plumbs letter to the committee as unsatisfactory.

Nine others from von der Leyens proposed team were asked by the committee for more information.

“She did not answer the questions of the Parliament, and she did not take away any of the concerns,” said Freund, who serves as the Greens/EFA groups coordinator in the Parliaments Constitutional Affairs Committee, which is responsible for ethics rules.

“She merely says that different rules in Romania and in the European Commission lead to differences in the declaration,” he said, adding that the submission does not explain her “financial situation, donations to her party, loans where nobody knows how she manages to pay them back.”

Referring to the earlier corruption allegations, Daniel Caspary, a prominent German MEP from the center-right European Peoples Party, said: “If the things that circulate come true, then we have a serious problem.”

Financial interests

Nine others from von der Leyens proposed team were asked by the committee for more information. The nominee for foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, said in his letter to the committee dated September 23 that he had been asked to “consider the possibility of disposing of my shares in Bayer, Iberdrola and BBVA in order to prevent any conflict of interest.”

He wrote: “I have not considered this possibility so far, since these shares represent a small amount of my financial assets. More importantly, the sectors of activity of these companies (renewable energies, pharmaceutical and banking) are not related with the responsibilities for which I have been designated.”

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