December 21, 2016 / 3:00 PM / in 10 months

EU reprimands ex-commissioner Kroes, recoups cash

Neelie Kroes attends a news conference on the European Commission in Brussels September 1, 2014. REUTERS/Laurent Dubrule

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The EU handed an unprecedented public reprimand to a former commissioner on Wednesday for taking allowances she was not entitled to but stopped short of legal action after recouping the money.

A lawyer for Neelie Kroes, who was the Dutch commissioner for 10 years until late 2014, said she repaid 2,000 euros when, in the course of preparing her defense in a separate ethics inquiry into an undeclared offshore directorship, she discovered her accountant had failed to report any of her income for 2015.

That mattered because, like her colleagues, she continued to receive a “transitional allowance” from the European Commission after leaving the EU executive -- a payment that would have been lower if she declared substantial sums from other activities.

The Commission, which has been trying to douse accusations that the EU is run by a self-serving elite, said in a statement its ethics panel found Kroes, 75, broke rules on two counts.

In the case for which she was initially investigated, prompted by leaks of Bahamas registers of company directors, it accepted her apology for not declaring an interest in a firm there when joined the Commission in 2004. She said she did not know she was still listed as holding the unpaid post.

But in the financial case that then also came to light, the Commission said she “did not act with the necessary diligence” -- a reprimand EU officials said was the first of its kind.

Having been competition commissioner, Kroes later held the digital affairs portfolio under Jose Manuel Barroso. She irked Barroso’s successor as president, Jean-Claude Juncker, when she criticized an EU antitrust ruling against Apple in late August.

As Kroes is an adviser to another Silicon Valley titan, Uber, that intervention in the case was seen by critics as a conflict of interest with her previous roles. It also came after an outcry over Barroso joining U.S. bank Goldman Sachs to advise on Brexit, weeks after Britain’s vote to leave shocked the EU.

In September, as the Bahamas Leaks story broke, Kroes’ lawyer Stijn Winters said she found an error in a filing on 2015 income to the Commission: “She realized that the salary line on her declaration form with the EU had not been filled in.”

The Commission said she reported no 2015 income in a January filing. But on Sept. 20, it said, Kroes sent it new figures.

Neither the Commission or Winters would say how much Kroes did not declare but rules governing transitional allowances -- paid to ex-commissioners for up to three years as they look for new jobs -- imply it could have been tens of thousands of euros.

The allowance is worth up to about 160,000 euros a year, or two thirds of a commissioner’s base salary. However, if they earn more than about 80,000 euros from other activities, then the allowance is cut so it does not boost their total earnings above the roughly 240,000 euros paid to serving commissioners.

Additional reporting by Toby Sterling in Amsterdam; editing by John Stonestreet

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