BRUSSELS, March 12 (Reuters) - Europe's top ethics watchdog has criticised comments made by a former EU antitrust regulator about Credit Agricole in a financial benchmark rigging probe, saying they seemed to be prejudiced against the French bank.
The opinion by European Ombudsman Emily O'Reilly comes six months after Credit Agricole complained about former European Competition Commissioner Joaquin Almunia's handling of the case. The Spaniard stepped down in October last year after a five-year tenure.
Credit Agricole was one of 10 lenders investigated by the European Commission in 2013. Unlike six of the banks which settled the case with a record 1.7 billion euro ($1.8 billion) fine, Credit Agricole, HSBC and JPMorgan rejected the charges.
O'Reilly, whose office investigates complaints and maladministration in EU institutions, said on Thursday Credit Agricole's complaint that the Commission had breached its obligation of impartiality in its probe was justified.
"Statements by former Competition Commissioner Joaquin Almunia about an ongoing cartel investigation involving the French bank Credit Agricole created a public impression of bias, that the former Commission had already reached a conclusion about the bank's alleged participation in the cartel before the investigation was complete," she said.
She said the current Commission should issue guidelines on public statement made by commissioners about ongoing investigations to prevent a repetition of such incidents.
The Commission sent a charge sheet known as a statement of objections to Credit Agricole, HSBC and JPMorgan in May last year, saying they may have taken part in the rate rigging cartel.
The banks are expected to ask for a closed hearing in the coming months to defend themselves.
$1 = 0.9498 euros Editing by Mark Potter