The EU’s anti-fraud office has opened an investigation into Henrik Hololei, the EU’s departing transport chief, following POLITICO’s revelations that he accepted free flights on Qatar Airways.
The fresh probe comes shortly after Hololei resigned from his position as director general of the European Commission’s transport department on Wednesday amid mounting scrutiny over the free trips, which came while his team negotiated a major aviation deal with the Gulf state.
Hololei approved the flights himself — a procedure that was allowed at the time. The rules were later changed following the revelations.
“We can confirm that OLAF has opened an investigation into the matter,” said the agency, formally known as OLAF, in a statement to POLITICO. The probe, the agency’s press office stressed “does not mean that the persons/entities involved have committed an irregularity/fraud.”
OLAF is tasked with investigating EU budget fraud and misconduct within EU institutions. It can recommend disciplinary actions, but its suggestions are non-binding. It can also refer evidence of criminal activity to relevant authorities, but it cannot bring criminal charges itself.
Prior to the OLAF announcement, the Commission had also been probing Hololei’s flights. But on Friday, a Commission spokesperson said the institution had paused its work and would defer to the anti-fraud office’s investigation, citing an agreement between the two.
The OLAF probe is the latest development in the weekslong saga that began in late February when POLITICO reported that Hololei had flown business class for free on Qatar Airways nine times between 2015 and 2021, according to details obtained through freedom of information requests.
Six of the free flights occurred while the EU and Doha were hammering out their aviation agreement. And four of the flights were paid for by the Qatari government or a group with links to Qatar.
On Wednesday, Hololei said he was resigning as director general of the European Commission’s transport department, known in the Brussels lexicon as DG MOVE, and moving to a department dealing with international partnerships. He will retain his salary level but lose his management responsibilities, according to a senior EU official.
The labor union representing Commission employees emphasized that since Hololei’s move had technically come of his own volition, the switch didn’t prohibit further internal punishment.
“Hololei has not been punished following the findings of the investigation, which is still ongoing,” Cristiano Sebastiani, president of the Commission staff union Renouveau & Démocratie, told POLITICO. The job change, Sebastiani added, “has no impact on the investigation that must be carried out to its end.”