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EU asylum agency accused of covering up ‘irregularities’

The head of the EU’s asylum agency is facing accusations of misconduct three years after she was tasked with restoring the body’s credibility following her predecessor’s abrupt resignation.

In a complaint sent to the EU’s anti-fraud agency and the European Commission last week, employees of the European Union Agency for Asylum called for a probe into top management over alleged nepotism, misleading reports and mishandling of harassment claims.

The complaint, seen by the Financial Times, is targeting executive director Nina Gregori, who took charge in 2019 after the departure of predecessor José Carreira, who had faced accusations of harassment. The unnamed whistleblowers decided to sound the alarm to help restore the agency’s proper functioning, they wrote in the complaint.

“Gregori has now set up a complex system of legal structures and controls that give an appearance of compliance and regularity but that, in reality, hide and cover all Agency’s irregularities,” they alleged. Gregori has ensured it is impossible to alert “the Management Board, the European Commission, the European Parliament and the public”, they claimed.

Allegations against Gregori include appointments that contravened human resources rules. She rapidly promoted the careers of allies in breach of EU guidelines and has kept employees in jobs for longer than the duration stipulated in their temporary contracts, according to the complainants.

Gregori and her senior managers have rejected the allegations in a statement to the FT.

The EUAA, which is based in Malta and employs about 2,000 people, offers member states legal, technical and operational assistance. In January, the agency was given a new name and a reinforced mandate to help unify the way member states handle asylum claims.

A Slovenian national who worked in her country’s interior ministry for two decades, Gregori was appointed with a mission to strengthen oversight over recruitment, procurement and internal controls in the wake of the allegations against her predecessor.

While the employees did not accuse the agency’s management of financial fraud, they argued that unjustified salaries were paid out as a result of these wrongful appointments, citing “the fraudulent use of EU budget channelled into irregular salary payments” to dozens of managers.

The asylum agency allegedly hired some people who were linked to “corruption cases publicly reported across Maltese media”, as well as relatives of some of the agency’s managers who got to “skip the queue” to land jobs, according to the complaint, which did not name the people whom it claims to have been wrongfully recruited.

Gregori and other managers also sent misleading reports to the European Commission, the European parliament and included false information in their internal control reports, the employees claimed.

Olaf, the EU anti-fraud unit, confirmed that it had received the complaint and was evaluating its “potential investigative interest according to standard procedures”.

A probe would be opened if the watchdog decides it has competence to act and if there is “sufficient suspicion of serious misconduct” involving either fraud, corruption or illegal activity, it said.

The commission confirmed receipt of the complaint and said that Olaf would analyse “potential investigative interest” and follow-up actions.

The EUAA said in an emailed response that Gregori and the other senior managers cited in the complaint “strongly refute the anonymous allegations of gross irregularities and are saddened” by the attacks. It deplored “the repeated use of factual inaccuracies and the distortion of facts intended to damage the good reputation that the Agency and its staff have been steadily building over the past three years”. It added that it would collaborate with Olaf.

Monika Hohlmeier, chair of the European parliament’s Budgetary Control Committee, who was sent a copy of the complaint, said: “I am of the firm opinion that serious allegations of misconduct at any EU institution, body or agency should always be thoroughly checked and investigated.”

The complaint also targets Mark Camilleri, who was allegedly the subject of harassment complaints by five staff members in the past three years and who was “supported” by Gregori “in all cases”, the employees alleged.

The head of the agency’s internal controls, Gerardo Knouse Ramirez, also stands accused by the complainants of covering up mismanagement, as well as being “instrumental in the dismantling” of the post-Carreira crisis plan requested in 2018 by the European parliament and member states.

Camilleri and Knouse Ramirez both denied all the accusations included in the complaint, the EUAA said.

The agency’s management was committed to improving the governance and function of the EUAA and “this transition remains ongoing”, the EUAA said, adding that Gregori’s team was working to “encourage a culture of transparency and accountability”.

SOURCE: https://www.ft.com/content/3cea0214-0260-44e0-ada2-ae942cbb4782

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