BRUSSELS — The European Union's top health official John Dalli resigned in an almost unprecedented move Tuesday after being cited in an EU anti-fraud probe into a tobacco-linked influence-peddling claim.
The European Commission said the health and consumer policy commissioner from Malta left "with immediate effect" after informing Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso "of his decision following an investigation by OLAF, the EU's anti-fraud office, into a complaint" by tobacco producer, Swedish Match.
A Commission statement said the company alleged in May that a Maltese entrepreneur had used his contacts with Dalli "to try to gain financial advantages from the company in return for seeking to influence a possible future legislative proposal on tobacco products, in particular on the EU export ban on snus."
Snus, or Swedish snuff -- also known as Nas in some countries -- is a moist powder tobacco originated from dry snuff. Though its sale is illegal across the EU, it is manufactured and used in Norway and Sweden.
"No transaction was concluded between the company and the entrepreneur and no payment was made," the Commission statement added.
An OLAF report sent to the Commission on Monday "did not find any conclusive evidence of the direct participation of Mr Dalli but did consider that he was aware of these events."
The OLAF report is being sent to Malta where the judiciary will decide on any follow-up.
The Commission said that "after the president informed Mr Dalli about the report received from OLAF, Mr Dalli decided to resign in order to be able to defend his reputation and that of the Commission."
The OLAF report showed the Commission's decision-making process "has not been affected at all", the statement added.
Dalli will be replaced temporarily by a Commission vice president, Maros Sefcovic, until Malta can put forward a successor.
Such high-level resignations are virtually unprecedented at the EU and observers had to go back to 1999 when the entire European Commission stepped down after France's Edith Cresson was accused of helping favourites and mishandling a European professional training programme.
Cresson famously refused to resign and European Commission head Jacques Santer of Luxembourg decided his whole team would have to go when an expert committee set up by the European Parliament ruled that he had lost control of the EU administration.
The European Parliament has the power to kick out the Commission but must first get an outright majority among all members, or a two-thirds majority of those voting, to do so.
MEPs also have a right of veto over an incoming Commission, using this power in the past to force member states to withdraw a candidate for commissioner.
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