Tuesday, March 15, 2005

"We have ways of breaking people like you"

That is a direct quote taken from the e-mail on which Ambrose Evans-Pritchard bases his story in the Daily Telegraph this morning.

It is what Jules Muis, the former director-general of the commission's Internal Audit Service, says he was once told in private by a chef de cabinet in the EU commission, illustrating quite how sinister is the culture.

The point Muis makes is in the context of the "whistleblower" Marta Andreasen, the former chief accountant who was sacked by the Prodi commission after she had complained about the inadequacies of the commission’s accounting system, claiming that the EU budget was "an open till waiting to be robbed".

Muis, who was recruited from the World Bank as a trouble-shooter to help clean up the commission accounting system, had "director general" status, which put him at the top of the pecking order in terms of seniority. If he, in such high office, was vulnerable to commission pressure, Andreasen did not stand a chance.

Anyhow, the purpose of the Muis e-mail is to respond to a series of questions put to him by the commission's "Appointment Authority", which is undertaking an investigation into why Andreasen was appointed in the first place – presumably with the intention of ensuring that no similar person is ever again appointed to the commission ranks.

In answering those questions, Muis prefaces his responses with three pages of personal remarks, stating that:

Core to this issue is not only a possibly totally bungled recruitment process - which started it all - but with no apparent accountability by anyone - and with no winners – but also the challenges a first Commission Accountant professional faced, whatever her (and her immediate environment's!) alleged social skills/intelligence, or the lack of it, fully aware and increasingly concerned about the professional risks she ran if matters were not clearly spelled out up front…
He goes on to write that there had never been "in the Commission's history" a situation when the budget directorate was run by a professional accountant; hence, which had "a perverse incentive system by effectively rewarding bonuses to non qualified accountants if they managed not to be associated/discover financial malfeasance". The old accountant(s), he adds:

...may well have felt comfortable surfing the so-manieth (sic) year of seeing the Accountant's unit Service get away with impunity with financial reporting and controls frameworks which were in substantial non compliance with the Financial Regulation prevailing.
Thus, he knew of no professional accountant ever having to start, and/or end up, her job with an such an vulnerable and undefined (working) opening balance sheet, as Mrs Andreasen. For no money or professional reward would Muis himself have wanted to have been in Ms Andreasen's professional responsibility/ personal liability shoes.

Chillingly, he then gives an inkling of what Adreasen faced: the "unforgiving inclination of a bureaucracy" which, once a person is declared taboo by the powers that be, can marshal its "collective firepower" to "trash an individual… at taxpayer's expense." The justification, observes Muis is that in a political - and politicised - organisation "might makes right" all too often.

Compared with what Andreasen had to put up with, Muis thought his own internal audit job seemed like a picnic: Reform had been defined and "fortunately", there were plenty of public servants in the commission who did understand the new spirit of reform. Even then, he writes, he did have "avoidable and unavoidable up-hill battles", during one of which he had been told by the (anonymous) chef de cabinet that "we have ways of breaking people like you".

Without the privileges of rank that Muis enjoyed, Andreasen had no protection. She was "a Fremdkorper (an alien or exotic body) in a swim or sink situation in a not very friendly pond."

The problem she was confronted with was "differences of opinion" not about the direction to go, but "recognition of the real depth of the problems at hand", in the context of "an incestuous esprit de corps" within the budget directorate "not particularly taken by aliens imposed from a different world".

Consider, he says, "cruel political and politicized defense mechanisms creeping in once someone is declared unwanted, and one will have a more complete picture of Mrs Andreasen's challenges at the very, very short time she had to prove herself."

Referring back to the nature of the inquiry - about whether the commission had made a "recruitment mistake" – Muis stated that, in his former career in the World Bank, should such a mistake have been made, "we call the decision-makers to account; and then call it a day." We do not, he says, "continue to try to push the toothpaste back in the tube by convoluted procedures which distract from the main issues at hand; and therefore from possibly useful lessons for the future."

He thus acknowledges his "deep unease with the treatment of the Andreasen case, having totally unnecessarily started and evolved into a slow motion public circus." He also sees the disciplinary procedure as "potentially an off street smoke and mirror side show with ultimately no winners, only losers, and too many potential clowns."

Then we get to the core of what the commission is doing. The full story, he says, has not been told yet - at least to me - neither by the bureaucracy nor by Ms Andreasen. "I am totally underwhelmed, and a bit embarrassed, to see my Reform Commission trying to turn me into a character witness by digging up and presenting five anonymous witnesses for building a Andreasen difficult-personality".

The Appointment Authority, he notes, should be able to put its finger on the question whether something has gone awry in the recruitment/nomination procedure and, "if the answer is no” it must explain “how a professed excellent candidate can turn sour in three months time to the point of the Authority removing her." He adds:

The Appointment Authority will be well aware that once the Commission has branded a staff member as non functional, few will step forward to counter that claim. I am surprised as a matter of fact there are not fifty witnesses stepping forward in the same vein as quoted. This is after all an organisation that, anachronistically, can sanction people for not speaking well about the Commission.
With that, he delves into answering the commission questions, which we will deal with in a separate posting.

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