A maverick group of MEPs in the European Parliament is planning to recuperate over $38 million the European Commission lost in Lebanon on bogus waste management schemes, along with prosecuting those who were held responsible for the corruption there, TRT World can reveal.
The news will concern some big players in Lebanon like Najib Mikati and Saad Hariri, who a Lebanese businessman has linked to millions of euros stolen from EU waste management programs and for being behind a new ruse to pilfer even more international aid money heading towards a $1 billion incinerator scam.
Following an investigation published in May last year, which not only exposed European Union aid being diverted, in many cases, into the pockets of Hezbollah but also linked EU plants to a spike in cancer cases, the European Parliament is about to hit both Lebanon and the office of the EU’s former foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini.
The move is seen as controversial and very much a new direction from MEPs who want to see more accountability in how EU aid money is spent. It is a blow to Mogherini who was initially asked by a Portuguese MEP, Ana Gomes, in the summer to open a full investigation.
Mogherini, according to a confidential letter from July 2019, refused to do so.
The letter from Mogherini — written in a garbled fashion typical of EU institutions — is a firm denial of any wrongdoing.
“The EU put in place a number of internal and external mechanisms to monitor the implementation of its assistance in this sector”, writes Mogherini. “In parallel, the EU Delegation in 2018 launched an independent impact evaluation of the projects implemented through the Assistance to the Re-Establishment of the Lebanese Administration Programme (ARLA) and an independent review of the on-going Upgrading Solid Waste Management Capacities in Lebanon Programme (SWAM)”.
“The final report of the evaluation is expected by October 2019. The initial conclusions show no evidence of corruption” she claims.
Yet her refusal didn’t mean much to either Gomes or a new generation of MEPs voted into the European parliament over the summer and who started in their new jobs in June – managing, among other things, Mogherini’s replacement, Josep Borrell.
Enter the new guard
One informal group, made up of populist (or ‘right-wing’) members, led by former French President Nicolas Sarkozy minister, Thierry Mariani, is already on the warpath over the embezzlement of EU aid to Lebanon – which could block hundreds of millions of euros of EU support to Lebanon and Syrian refugees in the future.
Mariani, who courted controversy barely days after becoming an MEP by visiting Syrian regime leader Bashar al Assad in August of this year, has several French deputies behind him. He is worried about the bogus waste management schemes in Lebanon, which represent over $33 million (for 11 plants) and which he is concerned are fueling corrupt politicians, in addition to contributing to an alarming spike in cancer rates in Lebanon.
But he is only scratching the surface of how the EU has been entrapped for decades in Lebanon and lost much, much more than merely $33 million to corrupt politicians and militias there.
If Mariani’s call for an investigation about EU aid in Lebanon is serious, it threatens to lift the lid on complicit corruption and embezzlement of EU funds and, perhaps more importantly, those who have gone to great lengths to cover up the scandal.
An investigation would throw light on previous projects which swallowed much more EU money in the waste management sector. Previously the EU shelled out for the purchase of land and construction of at least six sewage works which stand idle today and have never functioned – also part of a much bigger scam which robbed EU coffers of potentially $110 million.
TRT World has learnt that Mariani's plan to create a committee made up of MEPs in the European parliament who would investigate such industrial-scale graft and embezzlement in Lebanon, prosecute those who were guilty and seek to take back the looted funds.
These MEPs place little confidence in the EU fraud office, ‘OLAF’, although TRT World understands, that the MEPs are cooperating with EU’s own anti-fraud unit, which has already told Mariani that it can only investigate graft which goes back five years.
The MEPs are hoping that the Lebanese government would take the initiative to investigate themselves and hand the cash back to Brussels as a token of goodwill.
During a passionate two-minute speech in the European parliament in Strasbourg on November 27, last year, in which Mariani cites the EU aid scam in Tripoli, Mogherini finally concedes that the issue needs to be examined.
Mariani's demands will no doubt be presented to the new EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell in mid-January who will find it harder to follow in the theme of the “cover-up of the cover-up” in Lebanon (as one MEP put it, in confidence).
The committee also aims to execute some pretty bold initiatives to assist the protest movement in Beirut which seeks to overthrow the corrupt elite and usher in a new era of accountability. For example, it also aims to freeze all international funds in western bank accounts linked to embezzled funds from state coffers.
Mossad, Hariri and ‘The Pianist’
The entirely unconventional move by Mariani in the European parliament can be attributed to a controversial Franco-Lebanese pianist, businessman and media tsar called Omar Harfouch. He kicked off the entire debacle a few weeks earlier in Brussels with a conference made up of deputies from national (EU) parliaments (like Dino Giarrusso MP from ‘Five Stars’ group in Italy) who are supporting the Lebanon initiative.
The erudite Harfouch, who is a minor celebrity in France, had organised a similar conference the year before in the French senate chaired by Philippe Douste-Blazy, who has also served as UN under-secretary-general.
His claims about Lebanon are extraordinary in that he says that a $38 million French-made waste management plant which he was days away from building himself (with local Lebanese bank money) was scrapped because of corruption – not isolated to the political elite in Lebanon but which, remarkably, extended to civil society.
His incendiary accusations point the finger at NGOs in Tripoli – and the figures behind them - who he claims have been promised huge kickbacks from planned incinerator deals which many in Lebanon believe are entirely about steering huge payments to the elite through inflating their real purchase costs.
Even caretaker PM Saad Hariri, who is in favour of the incinerators, has been accused of being part of the scam, which Harfouch says, in reality, are around $120 million each but have been inflated to 170 so that those who sign off on the deals pocket the generous markup.
Harfouch specifically fingers the NGOs and the mayor of Tripoli for falling for the promises of a share of this cake (incinerators) which he claims is why his French plant was blocked at the last moment, and he became the subject of a smear campaign which linked him to Mossad and tarnished the proposed plant as “homosexual”.
Remarkably, the initial proposal came with quite some political clout from France. In July 2018, a French delegation of MPs visited the present EU-funded plant in Tripoli which was causing the stink in the first place – both metaphorically (corruption) and literally. The idea came from a French MP called Nathalie Goulet.
Harfouch initially met with politicians in Tripoli who asked France to help. He also met with Tripoli billionaire and former PM Najib Mikati and President Michel Aoun who both said if he could find a solution, they would support it – a hollow if not disingenuous offer, it would transpire.
Ominously though, there were signs even then, that his proposal would fail as it didn’t include one vital ingredient: the kickback or ‘baksheesh’ element.
“Lebanon did not accept my project as no one took [bribery] money from it,” Harfouch tells TRT World in a phone call.
“Even everyone used to ask me how to get money from it, but I used to say ‘there is no money’ he explains. In Lebanon, international aid deals or such grants usually have a built-in facility to allow those on the ground to skim money from the scheme. Projects which don’t have this – or which don’t have sponsors who are prepared to turn a blind eye to embezzlement – typically fall at the first hurdle."
And indeed, Harfouch’s project did not allow for such a scheme. Perhaps worse, he told people there in Tripoli that it did not, therefore assuring its failure.
He claims he met with Hariri seven times, who always gave the green light but mysteriously never pushed the project forward himself, which made Harfouch wary of the Lebanese former Prime Minister.
“The Mayor of Tripoli led a campaign against the new factory by civil society. At the same time, I am hearing stories about three incinerators each one USD 170 million, but in fact, the real price is 120, so 50 million, I don’t know where it goes...” says Harfouch.
“Hariri was very sincere with me, but each time I went to the PM, a lobby went to him [later] to tell him that with the incinerators, one will get 10m, another one another 10m, so I understood there was a big corruption scheme which wanted to kick me out of Lebanon, even going so far as to spread rumours that I was a Mossad spy,” Harfouch explains.
His dealings with Mikati, whose net worth is believed to be closer to $5 billion (rather than the $2.5 billion suggested on Wikipedia), are also bizarre if not alarming. Harfouch claims that initially Mikati threatened him and said over a telephone that he could have him “disappear”.
It’s for this reason why Harfouch is afraid to return to Lebanon. He claims the threats he has received are genuine. He says that Mariani now is the man to take the Lebanon dossier forward and expose the embezzlement along with the help (presently) of two Italian right-wing MEPs.
“Mariani is very brave. He is anti-corruption. He understood that many MEPs in the European parliament want to help,” he explains. “Once Mariani starts something, he will never stop. Everyone knows he’s clean. He’s poor, and he lives in a very small flat in Paris. Mariani is ready to go to Lebanon in February with a delegation to follow up on the investigation and find out where this EU money has gone.”