BRUSSELS – A corruption scandal at the top of the European Union flared up again Wednesday into a verbal war of words.
Eight days after EU Health Commissioner John Dalli suddenly resigned from the EU's executive office over influence peddling accusations relating to tobacco legislation, heated charges flew between him and EU Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso.
Dalli claimed he was forced into resigning by Barroso and vowed Wednesday to open legal proceedings against him.
Barroso called Dalli's accusations "incomprehensible" and published a letter he sent to Dalli reminding him "of your obligation, as a former Commissioner, to behave with integrity."
Dalli stepped down from his high-paying post after the EU's anti-fraud office found that, even if he was not directly involved, he was aware of an attempt at corruption using his name surrounding new legislation on the Swedish smokeless tobacco known as snus. It said he should have reported it.
Dalli issued a strong denial.
"I have never been offered any money by anyone to alter any issue that I am responsible for including this case of snus, either directly or indirectly," he said.
The agency's report now goes to the Attorney General of Malta.
The scandal throws up a heady mix of characters and unresolved questions: An EU health chief willing to have informal meetings in his native Mediterranean island of Malta; a mysterious young female lawyer who might have been a cunning tobacco lobbyist; an EU president possibly seizing the chance to get rid of a staff member.
What brings it all together for conspiracy theorists is the start of new EU tobacco legislation, which can make millions of dollars in difference to businesses with just a few words.
The EU's tough tobacco legislation is up for review but because of Dalli's resignation it has been temporarily put on hold until a new commissioner is selected.
Dalli on Wednesday acknowledged meeting with a young female lawyer in January during the impromptu meetings he often has within the small political world of Malta, population 410,000. Some think she might have been a tobacco lobbyist seeking favor.
"She was simply gathering information about what is the position of snus," Dalli said. "She did not come to me as a lobbyist, she was asking questions."
Dalli also tried to argue he was far from the only EU commissioner talking to the tobacco industry.
"Many services have been informing me of an onslaught" of tobacco lobbyists, Dalli said. "They have been lobbying all the commission and they have been meeting all the commissioners."
Dalli now fears the scandal might push the legislation back until a new European parliament is elected in 2014.
A dozen years ago, the whole EU Commission resigned after an investigative panel alleged cronyism and financial irregularities in their ranks.