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Hold your horses! Top EU digital lobbyist has to pay up for selling horse as a pony

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One of Europe’s top tech lobbyists is in hot water over her horse-trading.

A Danish court has ruled that Cecilia Bonefeld-Dahl, director general of Brussels-based lobby group DigitalEurope, must pay 941,881 Danish kroner (€126,612) plus interest after a competition pony she sold was declared to be a horse.

The curious case involves Spartacus, a gelding that court papers show was sold by Bonefeld-Dahl to a buyer called Sara Torabi in late 2016 for Torabi’s daughter Lea to ride in elite pony competitions in Denmark and abroad. 

At an international competition in 2018, however, Spartacus was measured to be a horse rather than a pony — a fact that greatly reduces his market value. Bonefeld-Dahl won her original court fight over the matter, but an appeals proceeding decided on May 19 that she had not performed her duty of informing the buyer about a key detail, namely that a measurement prior to the sale had suggested Spartacus was too tall to be a pony.

The decision was originally reported in Danish media and the saga fanned interest among Brussels lobbyists in their chat applications, where they mockingly dubbed it #PonyGate. POLITICO received a full copy of the documents from the Danish court last week.

Bonefeld-Dahl is arguably Brussels’ most visible lobbyist on digital affairs. Her association DigitalEurope represents global tech giants including Amazon, Apple, Google, Meta and Microsoft, as well as major brands from other sectors and national and local tech associations.

According to the website of DigitalEurope, Cecilia Bonefeld-Dahl advises the European Commission on industrial policy | Kenzo Tribouillard/AFP via Getty Images

According to the website of DigitalEurope, Bonefeld-Dahl is also a member of the board of directors of Gaia-X — Europe’s grand cloud project — and advises the European Commission on industrial policy and NATO on emerging technologies on high-level advisory groups.

Bonefeld-Dahl denies that she misled anyone, saying that Spartacus was certified to be a pony by the Danish national authorities before she bought him. She also adds that he has been measured again in the past few weeks and found to be a pony.

“My lawyers do not agree with the last court ruling, and proceedings are currently ongoing for appealing the case to the Danish Supreme Court,” she said.

A matter of centimeters

Strict rules apply to the dimensions of ponies that can be entered in competitions. To be officially regarded as a pony, a horse must be between 141 cm and 148 cm, which documents from the Danish breeder’s association, called a horse passport, showed that the 148 cm-tall Spartacus was.

The implications for the animal’s price are considerable. The demand for ponies is much greater than for small horses taller than 148 cm, and Torabi paid DKK560,000 for Spartacus, a price which would have fallen to between DKK87,000 and DKK105,000 had Spartacus been taller, an appraiser cited consulted by the court said.

Initially things went well after the sale, and Lea Torabi rode Spartacus in various competitions in 2017 and early 2018, the court papers show.

But then things began to go wrong. At an international competition on June 14 2018 in Hagen, Germany, Spartacus was barred from competing after being measured and ruled too tall, an incident Sara Torabi told the court left her daughter distraught.

There was further bad news to come. While they were still in Hagen, the coach of the Danish pony team told the Torabis that Spartacus had been ruled too tall before, at a competition in Finland in June 2016, while Spartacus was still owned by Bonefeld-Dahl. 

Ultimately that decision in Finland was overturned because of substandard conditions in the height-check area and Spartacus had been allowed to compete.

Later in June 2018, Sara Torabi contacted Bonefeld-Dahl through legal representation and moved to annul the purchase of Spartacus saying she should have been told about the incident in Finland. 

Torabi wanted the money she had paid for Spartacus back plus interest plus compensation for other costs. The two sides couldn’t agree and the case was heard in the district court in Roskilde.

Torabi lost the case in the lower court and appealed. 

Denmark’s Eastern High Court agreed in its ruling that Torabi should have been told about what had happened in Finland | Liselotte Sabroe/EPA-EFE

In its ruling on the appeal on May 19, Denmark’s Eastern High Court agreed that Torabi should have been told about what had happened in Finland. 

It found that Bonefeld-Dahl  “could not have been unaware” that Spartacus had been ruled too tall during the Finnish competition and that it was the conditions when the measurements were taken that had led to the result being annulled. 

The court said that “given the level of the price paid and the expectations which a buyer of a pony in that price class may have,” Bonefeld-Dahl should have informed Torabi. 

She “is found therefore to have set aside her duty to inform of a matter of significant importance,” the court said.  

The court ruled that Bonefeld-Dahl should pay Torabi DKK 600,000 plus interest dating from October 16, 2018 as well as DKK 341,880,72 in costs.

Sarah Wheaton contributed to this article.

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