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EU parliament chief takes action as lobbying scandal simmers

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BRUSSELS — A vice president of the European Union’s parliament was suspended from her duties on Saturday after being caught up in an investigation into influence peddling at the EU assembly allegedly involving officials from Qatar.

Eva Kaili, a 44-year-old Greek former TV news anchor, was suspended by her party in Greece and the EU assembly’s Socialists and Democrats group Friday after Belgian police staged 16 raids across Brussels as part of a probe into corruption and money laundering at the parliament.

Four people were detained for questioning, and investigators recovered around 600,000 euros ($633,500) in cash and seized computer equipment and mobile telephones. Prosecutors did not identify the four but at least one was an EU lawmaker and one was a former member.

Authorities have not identified the Gulf country suspected of offering cash or gifts to officials at the parliament in exchange for political favors, but several members have linked the investigation to Qatar.

Parliament President Roberta Metsola “has decided to suspend with immediate effect all powers, duties and tasks that were delegated to Eva Kaili in her capacity as vice president of the European Parliament,” Metsola’s spokesman said late Saturday.

The decision was taken “in the light of the ongoing judicial investigations by Belgian authorities,” he said, without providing further details.

The EU assembly is set to hold its last plenary session of the year in Strasbourg, France, beginning Monday.

The co-president of the Greens group, Philippe Lamberts, called for a parliamentary inquiry and for the issue to be put to debate this week, echoing calls from some other political groups.

The Greens “strongly condemn corruption and bribery, cash and precious gifts cannot draw the political lines in this house,” Lamberts said in a statement. He added that his group “will vote against visa facilitation for Qatar in this week’s plenary vote.”

The EU’s executive branch, the European Commission, proposed in April that citizens from Qatar be granted short visa-free stays in the 27-nation bloc provided they have a biometric passport. The legislation has been working its way through the assembly.

Kaili’s party in Greece, the Socialist Pasok-Movement for Change, publicly distanced itself from remarks she made in the EU parliament last month praising Qatar, which is currently hosting soccer’s gala event, the World Cup.

She said the World Cup is “proof, actually, of how sports diplomacy can achieve a historical transformation of a country with reforms that inspired the Arab world.” Kaili also repeated what she said is an International Labour Organization view that “Qatar is a frontrunner in labor rights.”

After Friday’s raids, Belgian prosecutors said federal judicial police suspect that an undisclosed country in the Gulf region has been trying “to influence the economic and political decisions of the European Parliament.”

It said this was allegedly done “by paying large sums of money or offering large gifts to third parties with a significant political and/or strategic position within the European Parliament.”

In Italy on Saturday, Article One, a small center-left party, suspended former EU lawmaker Pier-Antonio Panzeri following reports he was caught up in the scandal.

In a statement posted on the party’s Facebook page, Article One said it was “disturbed” by the reports but expressed full confidence in Belgian investigators. It added that it “hopes that Panzeri can show he is not involved in something that is completely incompatible with his history and political commitment.”

Panzeri, who was inscribed in the Lombardy branch of Article One, was also once a member of the same political group in the EU parliament as Kaili, the Socialists and Democrats. The head of the group, Iratxe Garcia Perez, tweeted Saturday that “Eva Kaili should be replaced as EP vice-president in order to protect the institution’s respectability and citizens’ trust.”

The International Trade Union Confederation declined to comment Friday when asked by The Associated Press about reports that its general secretary, Luca Visentini, was also caught up in the affair. A message on the organization’s website on Saturday said that “ITUC has no further comment on this issue at present, pending further information.”

Associated Press writers Nicole Winfield in Rome, Derek Gatopoulos in Athens and Samuel Petrequin in Brussels contributed to this report.

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