Strasser jailed for bribery in European parliament sting

VIENNA Mon Jan 14, 2013 4:59pm GMT

Disgraced Austrian politician Ernst Strasser waits for proceedings at court for his trial in a corruption case that has undermined trust in European and Austrian institutions in Vienna January 14, 2013. REUTERS/Heinz-Peter Bader

Disgraced Austrian politician Ernst Strasser waits for proceedings at court for his trial in a corruption case that has undermined trust in European and Austrian institutions in Vienna January 14, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Heinz-Peter Bader

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VIENNA (Reuters) - Former Austrian Interior Minister and European lawmaker Ernst Strasser was sentenced to four years in jail for bribery on Monday in a case that prosecutors said undermined trust in European and Austrian institutions.

Strasser had faced up to 10 years in prison after being caught on camera offering to propose amendments to European legislation in exchange for 100,000 euros ($133,500) a year.

"There have been few people in the ... republic who have damaged Austria's image as much as you have," Judge Georg Olschak told a stony-faced Strasser, 56.

"That is why it was necessary to impose a penalty that would have a deterrent impact on possible copycats, and there are likely a few of those."

Strasser's attorney said he would lodge an appeal.

Strasser was exposed by undercover journalists from Britain's Sunday Times posing as lobbyists during a sting operation that ran from mid-2010 to March 2011.

Austria's top law enforcement official from 2000 to 2004, Strasser resigned when the story broke while denying wrongdoing. He said he wanted to protect the Austrian conservative People's Party, of which he was a senior member.

He insisted during his trial that he went along with the "lobbyists" because he believed they were U.S. Secret Service agents and he wanted to find out what they were after.

Olschak dismissed that line as one of the most outlandish he had heard in his two-decade career.

The two British journalists who broke the story in 2011 - Claire Newell and Jonathan Calvert - testified on Monday via video conference, the screen placed so that only court officials - not spectators - could see the undercover reporters' faces.

Calvert told the court the reporters had approached dozens of European Parliament members to sound them out about prospects for amending legislation in return for money, and met around 14.

But it was Strasser, who was an MEP from 2009 to 2011, who made headlines in the sting.

LOBBYIST? OF COURSE

The duo had asked Strasser to amend for clients draft European laws on handling electronic scrap and on regulating investments. They were told it was too late to alter the first, but said Strasser took credit for getting the second changed.

"He came back and said he had achieved an ever better result than we had asked for," Calvert said.

Strasser followed the proceedings calmly, occasionally jotting in a notebook he held in his lap.

"Of course I am a lobbyist," Strasser had told the journalists in a secretly filmed video that has been published on YouTube (r.reuters.com/gyd34t).

"This is a wonderful opportunity to learn all the people, to have my own network, and to use this network for my, for my companies. It's a very good combination."

Prosecutor Alexandra Maruna, who had kicked off the trial by saying Strasser "massively harmed European politics", echoed his filmed comments in her final summation.

"'Of course I'm a lobbyist,' Strasser said," she noted, turning to him in the dock. "No you weren't. You were a member of parliament."

Strasser is one of several once-mighty Austrian politicians brought down by corruption scandals that triggered tighter laws last year on party funding and politicians' finances.

Witnesses testified that Strasser was obsessed with the idea he was being spied on, but prosecutors repeatedly questioned why he had not gone to the authorities with his fears.

European politicians have battled to keep faith with the post-war ideals of European integration and rejection of extreme nationalism that led to the founding of what would become the European Union more than 60 years ago.

Less than 50 percent of the EU's half a billion citizens voted in the last European Parliament elections in 2009, and a poll in 2011 found that 26 percent had a negative image of the parliament, up from 17 percent three years earlier.

Defence lawyer Thomas Kralik had argued that what his client did may have been morally reprehensible but was not illegal. "The optics are not too nice, but this is a criminal trial. You are not here to judge optics," he told the judge and jury.

Three other European lawmakers were caught in the Sunday Times sting operation - Romania's Adrian Severin, Slovenia's Zoran Thaler and Spain's Pablo Zalba Bidegain. Thaler resigned after the scandal but the other two still sit in parliament.

(Reporting by Michael Shields; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

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