European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen (2nd R) speaks with Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla (2nd L), Belgium's Prime Minister Alexander De Croo (L) and German scientist, CMO and co-founder of BioNTech Ozlem Tureci (R) during a visit of the factory of US pharmaceutical company Pfizer, in Puurs, on April 23, 2021. / © AFP/Pool
An official EU watchdog on Friday slammed European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen for keeping secret text messages with Pfizer's CEO about purchasing Covid vaccine doses, saying it "constituted maladministration".
The EU ombudsman, Emily O'Reilly, issued a formal recommendation telling von der Leyen's office to search for and hand over the texts under a freedom of information request lodged by a journalist.
Von der Leyen's Commission spearheaded the pre-purchase of Covid vaccines for the 27 EU countries.
More than half the 4.2 billion doses the commission has bought or optioned are sourced from BioNTech-Pfizer, making it by far the biggest supplier to the bloc's inoculation efforts.
The commission refuses to divulge key aspects of its contracts with Covid vaccine suppliers, notably on pricing, citing commercial confidentiality.
Von der Leyen's active public role in ensuring vaccine access included one-on-one conversations with Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla, a dual Greek-American.
Her commission rebuffed a freedom-of-information request last year for the text messages, refusing to say whether the texts existed -- even though von der Leyen had referred to them herself in a media interview.
It argued to the ombudsman's service that it was only obligated to hand over archived documents and that text messages or other forms of instant messages did not qualify, being "short-lived" and unlikely to "contain in principle important information" on its policies, activities or decisions.
The ombudsman strongly disagreed, saying in her recommendation "it is clear that text messages fall within the scope of the EU’s law on public access to documents" and that EU case-law upholds the duty by EU institutions to retain documentation related to its activities.
"The case concerns whether, if the messages concern the commission’s work and if it holds them, the commission should have granted public access to them. How the commission dealt with this matter did not allow those questions to be answered. The ombudsman considers that this constituted maladministration," it said.
The ombudsman said the commission should ask von der Leyen's office to again look for the texts, and if it found them, "the Commission should assess whether public access can be granted to them" in line with EU rules.