Germany's former chancellor Helmut Kohl has become the focal point for a mounting tide of accusations concerning secret contributions to his Christian Democratic party while he was in office. RFE/RL's Munich correspondent Roland Eggleston looks at the scandal.
Munich, 21 December 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Germany has been shocked by a warning from prosecutors that the former Chancellor Helmut Kohl, could be fined or even sent to prison unless he co-operates with police investigating a scandal over payments to his Christian Democrat party.
Kohl told a television interviewer that between 1993-1998 he received around two million German marks (about $1.04 million) in secret donations in cash to the party. None of the money was ever listed in the party records, although this is required by German law. At the time Kohl was German Chancellor. He has declined to tell investigators who provided the money, the purposes for which it was used and why he considered it necessary to keep them secret.
The former chancellor has denied that any shady deals were involved. He says the money was used to rebuild the Christian Democratic party in eastern Germany after reunification and expand its social work programs. But he has declined to provide details on which party organization received money and how much they were given.
Kohl says he will not name the donors because he gave his word not to do so. He has not explained why. Donations to political parties are legal in Germany but those over 20,000 Marks have to be registered with the name and address of the donor.
A separate group of legal officials in Bonn and Berlin are exploring whether Kohl should be charged with a crime. A spokesman for the State prosecutors office in Bonn (who did not wish to be identified) said fraud, misuse of power or money-laundering were being considered. But he stressed that it was by no means certain that any charges would be brought against Kohl. These investigators have also requested documents from him and said a decision could be announced tomorrow.
An all-party parliamentary commission is also investigating the accusations but it is well behind the police inquiries. A spokesman for the Federal parliament said its hearings might continue for two years before reaching a conclusion.
The scandal has shocked Germans of all political persuasion. Until his party was defeated in the elections a year ago after 16 years in power, Kohl enjoyed a reputation as Europe's leading statesman. He was credited with leading the European drive to improve relations with Russia, of helping persuade NATO and the European Union to open-up to east European countries and of leading the political negotiations which resulted in the reunification of Germany.
But the accusations and his reluctance to provide information has damaged his standing even within his own party. A parliamentary member of the Christian Democrats, Hermann Kues, told a television interviewer: "No-one can put the party above the law. Kohl must tell the truth." Several CDU officials have told the media that Kohl has not told even the leadership of his own party the sources of the money passed to him in cash. Party officials who left a closed meeting with Kohl yesterday said they had learned nothing that was not already public knowledge.
The use of a fine against a reluctant witness was last used in Germany in 1987 in another inquiry into possible political corruption. Officials said it was extremely unlikely that investigators would ask for Kohl to be detained, even though the Legal Code allows a maximum six-month sentence. They stressed that witnesses in such cases cannot be compelled to testify if they would implicate themselves in a crime.
Officially the investigation is only about donations which were made to the Christian Democratic party and were never registered in the books as required by law and never mentioned in any tax records. It began last month when tax investigators learned that no records were available about a sum of $530,000 paid to the national treasurer of the party in 1991.
But the investigations have ballooned far beyond this initial inquiry. The German media say some investigators believe that the secret donations began earlier than 1993, when Kohl acknowledges receiving the first payments, and that more money is involved than the two million marks which he acknowledges.
There is open speculation on whether some of the money may been used to influence government policies. Most commentators focus on a specific case, the sale of the Leuna oil company in the former east Germany to the French oil company Elf Aquitaine. A Munich news magazine, "Focus" which is traditionally friendly to Kohl and the Christian Democrats, this week carries an interview with a French businessman, Andre Guelfi, who says his company in Liechtenstein paid 85 million marks (about $44 million) to unidentified German parties as a "commission" to promote the sale.
Guelfi did not name any of the Germans allegedly involved but he said he had been told by Elf Aquitaine that both Kohl and the then French President Francois Mitterrand were aware of the payment.
The German media has also suggested that a 73-year-old retired state secretary in the Federal Defense Ministry, Mrs. Agnes Huerland-Buening, may also have some information. According to these reports, Mrs. Huerland-Buening, was paid eight million Marks to act as an advisor to the steel concern, Thyssen-Krupp. Our correspondent says this firm was involved in the sale of the East German oil refinery to Elf Aquitaine but so far no evidence has been made public suggesting that Mrs. Huerland-Buening was connected with the deal..
Media and politicians have also raised questions about the sale of 36 German tanks to Saudi Arabia at the time of the Gulf war. These reports claim that an arms dealer, Karl-Heinz Schreiber, was involved. Germany has a policy of not selling arms to combatants in a crisis region but Kohl told parliament at the time that Germany had a "moral duty" to send the tanks to the Middle East because it did not send any troops.
For many Germans, the major blow is the possible involvement of the former chancellor in anything which has a smell of being not quite legal. Kohl himself appears stricken that he could be suspected of corruption or bribery.
"I was never corrupt; I never took money for myself," he said in the television interview. "It is intolerable when I hear people saying or writing that "Kohl was bribed" or that "the decisions of Kohl's government's decisions were influenced by donations." I never took any money"