Tomorrow is judgement day for former UK Conservative MEP Den Dover (North West region). The European Parliament is demanding that he repay £538,290 that it alleges was wrongly claimed by him between 1999 and 2008. He is contesting the decision and the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg is about to give its ruling.
The Parliament says that over this period it paid a total of £959,446 to a company called MP Holdings Ltd which had as directors Dover's wife and daughter. The money came from the allowance intended to pay the salaries and costs of an MEPs' staff, and the company was supposed to administer it independently and at arm's length from the MEP, although it seems that Dover's staff included his wife and daughter (part-time)
Questions about the arrangements started to be asked in 2006 but it was not until 2008 that the Parliament's Secretary-General suggested that there was a conflict of interest and asked for details of the actual expenditure. In October the Secretary-General ruled that for the period August 1999 to June 2008 only £421,156 could be justified as having been paid in salaries, national insurance and legitimate staff travel expenses.
So what does the Parliament consider was illegitimate expenditure?
£101,068 for three cars
£15,404 for office supplies and equipment, £89,235 for postage and stationery, £100,735 for the costs of rent and renovation of Den Dover's 'office', which just happened to be in his private home, and £20,767 for telephone costs (MEPs get a separate allowance for all these office expenses, and none of them are supposed to be paid from the staff budget)
£17,880 for 'entertainment expenses'
And (just) £200 in donations to the Conservative Party (!!!).
The Parliament says that the rest of the money it wants back represents the costs of VAT that the company apparently failed to pay to the UK's HMRC.
Dover's defence seems mainly be to challenge the figures, claim that the Parliament should prove that the money was wrongly spent rather than force him to prove that it was properly used, and declare that the European Parliament had never made absolutely clear that MEPs might have to produce evidence of how the money had been spent. He says that the Parliament went along with the arrangements for years without challenging them or suggesting that procedures needed to be tightened.
I hope that most people elected to the European Parliament know the difference between right and wrong, honourable and dishonourable behaviour, without having to have it laid down by law. But the fact is that some do not - as recent 'Cash for Amendments' - revelations suggest.
The scale of abuse that seems to have become common practice amongst some MEPs was revealed in a secret report by the Parliament's internal auditor in June 2008.
The report led to changes which have very significantly curbed the abuse of the secretarial allowance payments, but disgracefully the Parliament is still requesting that the Court of Justice keeps the auditor's report secret - ridiculous given that it can be found on the internet.
So Dover might well feel very hard done by to have been fingered and chased by the Parliament when so many others seem to have got away with it. Indeed, I think he could have got away with it himself if he hadn't tried to be clever and make payments through an 'independent' company.
Tomorrow we find out whether the Court agrees that the financial abuse was flagrant and the money must be repaid, or whether it agrees that the parliamentary rules were so lax for years that it would not be fair to demand retrospective repayments now - in which case there may be many MEPs who will wonder why we stuck not only by the rules but by the principles of financial transparency and honesty when we could have just pocketed £100,000 or two every year as some cheating bastards did.
One final point. The case before the European Court of Justice is administrative not criminal, but if Dover is required to repay the money does it end there? In Britain, MPs have gone to jail for wrongly claiming £20,000. What length of imprisonment would be justified by false claims for £500,000?