Economy Social Issues

EUROPEAN OF THE WEEK: Guido Strack – the downfall of a whistleblower

6 October 2011
Süddeutsche Zeitung Munich

He wanted justice, and for it risked family, work and health – to lose it all. Guido Strack was once an ambitious officer with the European Commission. But that was before he began to draw attention to abuses in his department.

Asked about his plans for the future, Guido Strack has a terse response: “There’s nothing there.” In his previous life the 46-year-old was an aspiring lawyer, family man, an official in the EU Commission in Luxembourg – a man with excellent career opportunities. Now he sits in his terraced house in Cologne and has time to brood.

Since 2004 he has been unable to work. His marriage has broken down, and he takes pills for depression. “He who wants to be respectable,” Strack says, “will get hammered.” This he has learned down through the years he has been fighting a forlorn battle: Strack vs. the European Union.

This past May, Strack was called before the Budget Control Committee of the European Parliament in  Brussels. He had 15 minutes to tell his story, though the chronology of events alone is a good thirteen pages long, and few experts still understand what it has all been about since that 30th of July back in 2002 when Strack made his fateful decision to notify the European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF) of abuses in his department.

A few weeks before, the  EU Commission had informed officials of their obligation to warn of financial irregularities and promised them protection against retaliation. And so Strack described how his superiors in the Publications Office in Luxembourg had caused a loss to the European taxpayers that he estimated at least four million euros, from a contract for the summarising and publication of EU legislation.

His life took a Kafkaesque turn

The contractor delivered “miserable” quality, and delivered late. But instead of demanding contractual penalties, Strack said, his superiors agreed to a revision of the contract, which led to cost overruns of 58 percent.

Strack might have been wiser to keep his mouth shut, for that was the start of his professional decline. OLAF dealt with the case rather listlessly. On 5 February 2004 the investigation was closed. The allegations, the final report concluded, were not sufficient to warrant disciplinary action. Now Strack, the alleged informer, swung into the sights of his chiefs.

A change of workplace didn’t help. The official staff evaluation he received was negative. Strack, the evaluation said, was unable to motivate employees. He received zero promotion points. “I realised then that my career was in the trash can,” he says.

On 1 March 2004 Strack broke down crying in a meeting. That was his last day at work. His former wife told him but not to pursue the matter any further, but Strack mustered his strength for the struggle to be rehabilitated. His life took a Kafkaesque turn. Now he is on early retirement, and the EU Commission has recognised his illness as work-related.

In the hearing in the meeting room of the Audit Committee this May there were only a few deputies. One was Inge Grässle, a European MEP for the CDU. One of her missions is to combat fraud in the EU. “I’ve always believed in going through the official channels,” she says. But this has changed since she first came to Brussels eight years ago. Back then they did not know the word “whistleblower”, the term for employees in companies or public agencies that call attention to mismanagement or worse.

EU has not yet joined the Convention on Human Rights

In the meantime Inge Grässle has learned of a number of similar cases, as people came to her with briefcases bulging with documents. “Each meeting shocked me all over again.” Recently she spoke with “extremely honourable” EU officials about which persons they would report on any suspicion of corruption. The response was always the same: “Never the higher-ups.”

In most cases, whistleblowers suffer the same fate as Strack. The contentious issue is never cleared up, and the huge bureaucracy turns against the troublemaker. “People are being broken,” Grässle says. In the end, their personal relationships and careers are destroyed, and they all become cases for the psychiatrist.” In recent years she has seen the number of whistleblowers in the EU fall off sharply.

In 2006 Guido Strack founded the Society of Whistleblowers Network, which has brought together 74 people. One is a former banker, three are former tax inspectors, and one is a geriatric nurse from Berlin. For years there in Berlin Brigitte Heinisch pointed to staff shortages and lack of hygiene in a home.

Nothing happened, and so she laid charges against her employer. In 2005 she was let go without notice. For years she complained unsuccessfully through the courts before her case was heard in July 2011 by the European Court of Human Rights. Her dismissal was found to be contrary to the fundamental right to freedom of opinion, and she was awarded compensation of €15,000.

Strack can only dream of that. As a EU official, the road to the Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg is barred to him. The EU, in contrast to its Member States, has not yet joined the Convention on Human Rights. Should Strack not give up at last, start a new life, look for another job? “Who would still want someone like me?” he asks. No, he’ll keep on fighting. He can’t help it. What he wants to know, in the end, is whether what he did almost ten years ago was right or wrong. Nine court proceedings are still pending.

Translated from the German by Anton Baer