BRUSSELS – The head of the EU’s environment agency has come under fire for using public funds for staff training in the Caribbean and Mediterranean and for spending some €300,000 to decorate its Copenhagen-based headquarters with plants.
Jacqueline McGlade – the British scientist who has headed the agency since 2003 – has raised eyebrows in the European Parliament for paying over €30,000 in EU funds for “staff training sessions” in Caribbean- and Mediteranean-based biodiversity projects managed by an NGO, EarthWatch, whose advisory board she was a member of at the time.
MEPs dealing with EU spending on Tuesday (27 March) are set to propose that the agency’s accounts for 2010 should not be signed off for now due to the alleged conflict of interests.
McGlade last year resigned from the advisory board of EarthWatch, after being warned by the EU court of auditors that there was a “potential risk for a conflict of interest,” Katja Rosenbohm, the head of the agency’s communications department told this website. She denied that the NGO had any direct benefits from her boss’s position.
In an official document sent to the European Parliament, the agency admits that it paid EarthWatch “a total of €33,791.28 for 29 separate staff training sessions in different locations,” however.
It notes that the “arrangements for staff attending training courses were initiated before the executive director became a member of the advisory board.”
It adds that the projects in the Caribbean and the Mediterranean were “in line with a priority in the agency’s work programme to raise awareness of environmental issues and develop expertise in the areas of research using citizen science and biodiversity as part of plans for the International Year of Biodiversity.”
A similar explanation was given when asked about a “green facade” project costing some €300,000 in 2010.
The project was flagged up in an email sent to select MEPs by anonymous agency staff.
“In 2010, Professor McGlade urged the senior management team to support her in the construction of a ‘green facade’ for the EEA headquarters in Copenhagen’s Kongens Nytorv. Given that the 2010 budget had been already approved by the EEA management board, the only legal way to erect such a facade was to appropriate funds approved for other scientific purposes,” the email says, adding that the agency’s head of administration opposed the move and was subsequently put on sick leave.
Rosenbohm says the email source is “not associated with the EEA staff and as such is fictitious and deliberately misleading.”
She admitted that the funding for the “living facade” was partly re-allocated from another budget line, however.
“The living facade was covered by the communications budget and from the facility management area. The reason was that we were doing a major public outreach activity during the year of biodiversity,” she said.
“The living facade installation presented the flower-and-plants density of europe by annual flowering plants and it was on one hand made for public outreach purposes – we had 18,000 hits on our website. On the other hand we wanted to explore under the environmental management approach under which we run our own facilities to demonstrate what such a living facade brings to our own living space,” she noted.
Asked if there was a budget increase as the anonymous email claims, Rosenbohm said: “Yes, but it was not €350,000, rather around €300,000. This was a very creative project and we had to do it in a very short term, so the budget evolved.”
She said it was “quite a reasonable share” of the agency’s activities, as it used just one third of its communications budget for the one-year long installation.
I’ll be the first to admit that there are aspects of this story filled with enjoyably comic absurdity (that living facade installation, some of the language used–“major public outreach activity during the year of biodiversity”–and, indeed, the very concept of a year of biodiversity), but I doubt if the EU’s taxpayers will be very amused.
And nor should they be.