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Germany: Financial Fraud Points To Former Chancellor Kohl

The reputation of Germany's former leader, Helmut Kohl, has come under an unexpected cloud because of a scandal over donations to his Christian Democratic party. Police say some of the largest donations were never registered in party records but simply disappeared.

Munich, 29 November 1999 (RFE/RL) -- As chancellor of Germany for 16 years until his party was defeated in elections a year ago, Helmut Kohl enjoyed a reputation as Europe's leading statesman and the man responsible for the reunification of his country. At a personal level, even his political opponents respected his honesty and integrity.

But now his name is being linked to a scandal involving the disappearance of large sums of money which were allegedly intended as donations to the Christian Democratic (CDU) party. Police investigators say some of the largest donations were never registered in the party records but simply disappeared. Other sums are alleged to have gone into secret accounts for distribution to various organizations. According to reports carried by German newspapers, some of the internal party memos referring to this money were signed PV -- the German initials for party chairman. At the time the CDU party chairman was Helmut Kohl.

In a turbulent session of parliament last week, an angry Kohl jumped to his feet and denounced any suggestion that he was involved in wrongdoing. He demanded the right to clear his name as quickly as possible.

Parliament's response was to establish a special commission which will review all donations to the Christian Democratic party during the many years in which Kohl was both party chairman and also chancellor. It will begin work this week. Kohl wants to make his statement to the commission before Christmas but parliamentary officials say this may not be possible.

Even without the possible involvement of Kohl, it is one of the biggest financial scandals to strike German politics since the end of the war. It is being described in German newspapers as the "dirty money" affair. Senior party officials admit it has seriously damaged the image of the Christian Democrats just as they appeared to be rebounding from defeat by the Social Democrats 1998 general election victory.

The affair began early in November as a tax evasion inquiry. It was aimed at Walter Leisler Kiep, the former national treasurer of the Christian Democrats. The tax investigators said he had received a cash donation of $530,000 in 1991 but there was no sign of it in the official party records. At first they suspected he might have kept it for himself and called him in for questioning.

The first scandal erupted when it was revealed that the money came from an arms dealer, Karl-Heinz Schreiber, who is now in prison in Canada.

The second scandal came when Schreiber told investigators the money was handed over because Kohl's government had agreed to the sale of 36 German tanks to Saudi Arabia at the time of the Gulf War.

In a series of interviews Kohl has vehemently denied knowing anything about the payment and rejected allegations that his party had accepted bribes to approve the sale of the tanks. But investigators say they have evidence that the German government first refused to sell the tanks but then changed its decision and sent them after all. Kohl has told reporters he felt Germany had a "moral duty" to send the tanks to the Gulf because it was not sending any troops.

He described the suggestions that he had been involved in wrongdoing as "one of the most evil accusations I have heard in years."

The money allegedly paid by the arms dealer never appeared in the party records. Investigators say it was apparently transferred to a secret bank account by the national treasurer, Kiep -- who received it -- and by one of the party's tax advisors, Horst Weyrauch, who is a close personal friend of Kohl.

In the meantime, investigators have discovered around 10 such secret bank accounts which -- they say -- were used by the Christian Democrats to receive clandestine payments. At the end of last week the CDU acknowledged that the $530,000 paid by the arms dealer had gone into one of these accounts. Investigators said they were first set-up in the 1980s. They say they believe that large donations, particularly by companies and industrialist, were split up among these secret accounts to hide their origin.

In an embarrassment for the Christian Democrats, much of the information about the secret accounts was provided to the investigators by a former general-secretary of the party, Heiner Geissler. He is considered to be hostile to Kohl because his political career was smashed about 10 years ago after he challenged Kohl's control of the party.

A senior prosecutor associated with the case told RFE/RL that it was far too early to say whether there was any wrongdoing associated with any of these financial maneuvers. No decisions on whether to prosecute will be taken until next year.

But opinion polls show that most Germans believe Kohl should be given an opportunity to explain his position to parliament's investigating commission as soon as possible.