The Maison Kurz scandal, explained – POLITICO
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Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz last week revealed that prosecutors were investigating whether he had committed perjury while testifying in 2020 before a parliamentary committee of inquiry into corruption. If indicted, which many legal observers believe is likely, Kurz – who denies the allegations – would be the first Chancellor to face criminal charges.
So far, Kurz and his supporters have vigorously rejected suggestions that he should agree to resign if charged. In fact, Kurz’s public defense has been practically Trumpian. According to Kurz’s account, his political enemies will stop at nothing to catch him.
“The goal behind it is: ‘Kurz must go,'” the Chancellor told a prime time hearing on Austrian public television last week. In his vigorous defense of his actions, Kurz has come so close to characterizing the case as a witch hunt as one can get it without really saying the words. He and his party have also not hesitated to question the integrity of the prosecutors behind the investigations, suggesting to journalists behind closed doors that the authorities were motivated by political prejudices.
Kurz’s handling of the case has heightened fears, both in Austria and beyond, that the media-savvy chancellor, who came to power promising a ‘new style’ of politics, will turn into an Alpine version of Viktor Orbán, the liberal-turned-populist leader of Hungary who has put his country on a decidedly authoritarian path. (The two are friends, and Kurz opposed the expulsion of Orbán’s Fidesz party from the center-right European People’s Party earlier this year.)
Such a shift would deal a blow to the EU, which is already struggling to defend democratic principles in much of central Europe.
Events in the coming months – especially the outcome of the criminal investigation into Kurz – should shed some light on the resilience of the 65-year-old Austrian democracy.
Like most political scandals, the web of accusations and suspicions that swirl around Kurz and his inner circle is complicated; distinguishing between facts and assumptions can be difficult. It’s not even clear whether this ultimate political scandal truism – cover-up is worse than crime – applies here, in part because the alleged cover-up was comically inept.
Despite the plethora of unknowns, a lot has been revealed, including a revealing series of text message exchanges between Kurz and members of his entourage.
To help you navigate the nooks and crannies of Kurz’s house, we’ve put together a guide to the basics of Scandal, who is involved, and what is at stake.
How it all began
The wave of investigations involving Kurz and his close associates (so far nine prominent members of his Austrian People’s Party – ÖVP – are under criminal investigation) began with “Ibiza” video.
Released in 2019, the now infamous secret images of a finca on the Spanish island, brought down Kurz’s first government, a coalition with the far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ). The video showed then-Austrian vice-chancellor, former FPÖ leader Heinz-Christian Strache, in 2017 (before taking office), offering to trade political influence for financial support for a young woman who he believed he was the well-off niece of a Russian Oligarch. Only parts of the footage, taken by hidden cameras during a long alcohol-fueled evening, was shown.
Who created Strache and why has not yet been fully clarified. In addition to bringing down the government, the video sparked criminal investigations and a parliamentary inquiry into corruption allegations involving high-profile politicians.
The casino connection
Among the many shocking statements that emerged from Strache’s mouth during his time at the finca was a claim that Novomatic, an international casino operator based in Austria, “pays everyone”.
Strache’s claim, which Novomatic denies, is at the center of Austrian authorities’ investigations into Kurz’s inner circle.
Prosecutors are investigating whether senior government officials, both from Kurz’s Freedom Party and ÖVP, have conspired with Novomatic executives to trade casino licenses for jobs and other favors.
The main accusation concerns a local FPÖ official named Peter Sidlo, who was appointed CFO of Casinos Austria just weeks before the Ibiza video, despite a headhunter’s determination that he didn’t have it. experience and qualifications required for the position.
At the time, Novomatic was a major shareholder of Casinos Austria alongside the Austrian state. Prosecutors are investigating whether Strache, then vice-chancellor, agreed to help Novomatic secure additional gaming licenses in exchange for accepting Sidlo’s appointment.
Strache and Sidlo say they haven’t done anything illegal.
Authorities are investigating a number of other current and former senior government officials as well as business executives connected with the case, including current and former finance ministers, the chairman of one of the largest Austrian banks and the current Austrian head of state. company, known as ÖBAG, which manages a portfolio of holdings worth more than 26 billion euros. All deny wrongdoing.
Who is investigating whom?
The main authority involved is the Corporate Crime and Corruption Prosecutor, known by its German acronym WKStA. In parallel, a special commission of inquiry in Parliament organized hearings on the case. It was during one of the committee hearings last year that Kurz was accused of lying.
As often happens in such investigations, the initial investigation took authorities in unexpected directions, triggering new allegations of wrongdoing, largely involving Kurz’s closest associates.
Who are the key players in Kurz’s circle involved in the scandal?
Employment: Austrian Chancellor
Party: Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP)
Allegation: Perjury. Authorities are investigating whether Kurz lied to a parliamentary inquiry last June. Kurz told the inquest that he and Thomas Schmid, a close associate who in 2018 was set to take over as the head of ÖBAG, the state-owned holding company, had not discussed the appointment of this last before the job is advertised. Kurz also told the committee that he was not directly involved in the selection of ÖBAG board members. Text messages between members of Kurz’s inner circle tell a different story.
Memorable moment: In the run-up to Schmid’s appointment in 2019, Kurz sent a message to his friend not to worry, “You’re going to get whatever you want. 😘😘😘 ”
Employment: Austrian Minister of Finance, Kurz’s best friend
Claims: Prosecutors suspect Blümel of participating in a corruption scheme involving Novomatic. In 2017, Harald Neumann, then CEO of the company, contacted Blümel about a tax issue the company was facing in Italy and asked to speak to Kurz, then Minister of Foreign Affairs. In their correspondence, Neumann mentions a “donation”. Prosecutors believe Neumann may have tried to win government aid in Italy with a donation to the ÖVP. Blümel and Neumann deny that the money changed hands or that the meeting with Kurz even took place. The two men say they are innocent of any wrongdoing.
Memorable moment: When the police raided Blümel’s private residence, they discovered that his laptop was missing. They later found out that Blümel’s wife had taken it when she went for a walk with their baby before the police arrived.
Sponsor moment: In a text sent in 2018 to reassure Thomas Schmid about his prospects, Blümel wrote: “Do not worry! You are family 😘😘😘 ”
Employment: CEO of ÖBAG, Austrian state-owned holding company
Previous job: Until 2019, Secretary General at the Ministry of Finance, post n ° 2
Claims: Schmid is believed to have helped set up Sidlo as CFO of Casinos Austria (see above). He also faced scrutiny over his own appointment as ÖBAG head after it emerged he helped edit the job posting and spent months in the finance ministry. to work behind the scenes to make sure he won the job.
Memorable moment: After Kurz texted Schmid saying he would get whatever he wanted from ÖBAG, he replied, “I’m so happy :-))) Love my chancellor 😀 😀 😀 👍👍💪💪”
Learn more about Sebastian Kurz
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If indicted and convicted, the Chancellor faces up to three years in prison.
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