What is a conflict of interest? Just because you can do something, should you do it? Can something be ‘lawful yet awful’ at the same time? Let’s consider the saga of former EU commissioner Jose Manuel Barroso and his recent employment as non-executive chairman of Goldman Sachs’ London-based investment bank. This past week an ad hoc EU ethics panel cleared Barroso of violating EU conflict of interest rules when his appointment to Goldman Sachs was announced in July 2016.

According to The Guardian, the EU’s “Current rules require ex-commissioners to have new jobs vetted for 18 months after leaving office. Barroso took up his bank position 20 months after leaving the Commission.” So he was technically not in violation of EU rules, but even the ethics panel of former MEP Dagmar Roth-Behrendt, the former European court judge Christiaan Timmermans, and the former commission official Heinz Zourek said that “Barroso had not shown the considerate judgment expected of someone who had held high office for many years, but concluded there were “not sufficient grounds” to determine that he had broken the Commission’s ethical code.”

Barroso protested that he was being discriminated against, which is pretty rich considering his 10-year tenure as an EU commissioner. Why wouldn’t Goldman Sachs want to tap into all that knowledge of the inner-workings of the EU, particularly during the upcoming Brexit negotiations? I am sure that Barroso would separate all inside information in his head from what he would communicate to his new colleagues at Goldman, in addition to clients he might represent going forward.

Yet, Barroso may not be out of the woods. Even though the EU ethics panel gave him a ‘lawful but awful’ pass, Emily O’Reilly, the head of the EU’s ethics agency (which is somehow separate from the ad hoc ethics panel noted above) has indicated her office may open an investigation into the matter stating. O’Reilly said, “Given the concern that continues to be expressed about Mr Barroso’s appointment and the existing code of conduct, the ombudsman will now reflect on the next steps, including a possible inquiry.” Finally, some 150,000 EU citizens have signed a petition to strip Barroso of his EU pension. 

Continue the conversation at Compliance Week Europe: 7-8 November at the Crowne Plaza Brussels. Join us as we look at changes in global anti-corruption regulations, slave labour risks in your supply chain, and how to detect fraud, to name just a few topics. Learn more