BRUSSELS -- The bell rang three times early on a cold Friday morning before a sleepy Hans-Martin Tillack, an investigative reporter for the German newsweekly Stern, answered the door in his T-shirt and boxers. Six Belgian policemen politely filed in, he recalled, handed him a search warrant and went to work.
For the next 10 hours, they combed through his apartment and his separate office, seizing his computer hard drives, his bank records, his Filofax organizer, four cell phones, 18 boxes of files and a copy of "Spaceship Brussels," his exposé of fraud and waste inside the European Union. When Tillack complained, he recalled, one of the officers shrugged. In Burma, the policeman told him, "journalists get treated much worse."
Hans-Martin Tillack of Stern magazine said the European Union thinks "it's more important to find out the leakers than to protect freedom of the press."
(Glenn Frankel -- The Washington Post)
The police were looking for evidence that Tillack had bribed an E.U. official to obtain a confidential memo from the union's anti-fraud unit, known by its French acronym OLAF. But what they were really doing that March morning, he and other critics allege, was retaliating against a reporter whose stories had embarrassed the E.U. by focusing public attention on corruption and secrecy.
"They think it's more important to find out the leakers than to protect freedom of the press," said Tillack, who says the bribery allegation is false and absurd.
The anti-fraud unit contends that it was pursuing only a bribery allegation made by a former official. Once the unit determined that the allegation was credible, officials said, it had no choice but to turn the matter over to police. "There was some evidence that money had been paid, and this meant the matter had a different importance and gravity from a criminal law point of view," said Joerg Wojahn, a spokesman for the unit.
Critics contend that Tillack's case is an indictment of the anonymous, unelected bureaucracy that rules Europe from Brussels. It's a cozy network, they claim, presided over by directors general who frequently operate like feudal lords.
In their view, these mandarins issue an endless stream of rules and regulations that are often opaque and unintelligible to all but the savviest insiders, while the elected parliament that is supposed to oversee them is weak and ineffective by comparison. Loyalty is prized, critics argue, and accountability is minimal.
People such as Tillack, who make too many waves, can find themselves on the receiving end of the commission's wrath. In 1999, Paul van Buitenen, a commission accountant from the Netherlands, was suspended on half-pay for going outside official channels after he took allegations of fraud to members of the European Parliament. Marta Andreasen was demoted from her post as the commission's chief auditor after publicly challenging its accounts two years ago. And Dorte Schmidt-Brown, a Danish official, stepped down from her post with Eurostat, the commission's powerful statistics agency, alleging that she had been harassed by an outside consulting company after she questioned its contracts with the commission.
In each case, commission officials have said the people involved failed to follow procedures for whistle-blowers and therefore were subject to internal discipline.
The European Parliament itself has come under fire for a reimbursement system that provides deputies with chauffeured cars, free health care, staff jobs for family members and travel allowances that can pay up to 10 times the actual airfare.
"Europe as a whole is not a democracy, but a bureaucracy," said van Buitenen, who no longer works for the commission and was recently elected to the European Parliament on a reform platform. "The instruments of democratic control are simply not developed enough to be effective."
No wonder, say the critics, that many Europeans feel alienated from the institutions that oversee their lives and work. Voter turnout fell below 30 percent in some areas during parliamentary elections in June, and a large contingent of E.U. skeptics -- including a handful of lawmakers who have pledged to abolish the union altogether -- won seats.
Hans-Martin Tillack, 42, came to Brussels in 1998, at a time of crisis for the European Commission -- the group of 20 commissioners, appointed by their home countries, that oversees the E.U.'s 24,000 civil servants and $100 billion annual budget. The commission is the executive arm of the E.U., carrying out policies and laws decided on by the European Parliament and representatives of E.U. member governments.
Van Buitenen's allegations of wrongdoing had recently become public, disclosing a pattern of cronyism epitomized by commissioner Edith Cresson of France, who had appointed her dentist to a high-paying E.U. post.