Ex-EU lawmaker Strasser "harmed European politics"

Reuters News

11/26/2012 8:00:29 AM - Reuters News

By Georgina Prodhan

VIENNA (Reuters) - Disgraced Austrian politician Ernst Strasser harmed European politics by agreeing to push for laws in the European Parliament in exchange for money, a Vienna prosecutor said when his bribery trial started on Monday.

The former Austrian interior minister and European lawmaker was caught on camera boasting of his lobbying skills and saying his clients paid him 100,000 euros ($130,000) a year for influencing legislation.

Strasser, who denies the charges, faces 10 years in jail if convicted of corruption.

Prosecutor Alexandra Maruna said at the start of the trial it was not relevant whether Strasser had actually taken any money or sought to push through any legislation. What was important that he had offered his vote and his voice for cash.

"He massively harmed European politics," she told the court.

Strasser, 56, was filmed last year by undercover journalists from Britain's Sunday Times posing as lobbyists. He resigned but denied wrongdoing, saying he wanted to protect his party, the Austrian conservative OVP.

"Of course I am a lobbyist," he told the journalists in a secretly filmed video that has been published on YouTube (http://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."

Strasser, one of several once-mighty Austrian politicians embroiled in corruption scandals, told the journalists he already had five such clients.

On Monday, he reiterated his defence that he went along with the "lobbyists" because he believed they were U.S. secret service agents and he wanted to find out what their goal was - eliciting laughs from the public and press in court.

Asked by the judge why he had not gone to the authorities with his suspicions, a stony-faced Strasser said his experience as Austrian interior minister had taught him not to trust them.

NEGATIVE IMAGE

The trial in Vienna comes as European politicians battle 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 half of the EU's half a billion citizens voted in the last European Parliament elections in 2009, and a poll last year found that 26 percent had a negative image of the parliament, up from 17 percent three years earlier.

"Most European parliamentarians are as lazy as I am," Strasser told the Sunday Times journalists.

Strasser's defence lawyer Thomas Kralik said on Monday the full eight hours of video footage to be shown during the trial would show a different picture of Strasser from the three-minute YouTube edit.

Asked what his defence strategy would be, Kralik told journalists outside court: "We have no strategy. We'll stick to the truth."

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.

Eight days have been allotted for Strasser's trial, with the verdict expected on December 13. ($1 = 0.7717 euros)

(Editing by Alison Williams)