No indication of criminal behavior, not even an initial suspicion that something might not have happened properly: In Berlin, you still have the public prosecutor’s office on your neck – if you belong to the wrong party.
A politician buys a house for himself and his wife. The house is on the outskirts of Berlin, in the Nikolassee district. The purchase price is 1.65 million euros, at least that’s what the newspaper said later.
The house isn’t brand new anymore. A certain renovation backlog has formed, as the experts call it. So the politician concludes a loan agreement with his bank that also covers the renovation. He borrows 2.35 million euros when buying. Another 450,000 euros will be added later.
A real estate business that happens every day in Germany. Not further newsworthy. But the politician is not just any politician. It is the Federal Finance Minister Christian Lindner. Lindner is also chairman of the FDP, a party that many editorial floors reject as a matter of principle. So everything is of interest here, including buying a house in Nikolassee. Or shouldn’t it be better to say in his case: suspicious?
The credit gives nothing scandalous. The interest rate is where it would be at other lending companies. In fact, every bank is happy to have a customer like Lindner. Set age, living in orderly circumstances, no Schufa entries, financially secure. As anyone who has ever tried to get a loan knows, it’s worth enough to the banks to give discounts on interest.
So no acceptance of an advantage, no matter how you look at it. But Lindner gave a few lectures at his trusted bank, BBBank, before he was finance minister. This had no effect on lending and was duly reported to the Bundestag administration at the time. But you can make assumptions.
Lindner also sent the bank a greeting in May on the occasion of the company’s 100th anniversary. The delivery of greetings is as natural for a federal minister as it is for a police officer to issue traffic tickets. Again: no connection to the loan evident. But like I said, you can ask questions.
At “Spiegel” it goes like this: “Is there a risk of conflicts of interest? Why is the mortgage in the end a good one million euros more than the house cost? Will the renovation be that expensive? And how could the bank be sure that Lindner would be able to repay the large sum?”
Well, how could the bank?
Had the editors read their own article, they would have found the answer. “In the last election period from 2017 to 2021, Lindner was one of the MPs with the highest additional income,” says the back. “If you add up the reported fees from this period, you get an income of 514,000 to 1096,500 euros. In addition to the diets as a member of the Bundestag.” But who reads “Spiegel” articles to the end, right?
It has been almost four months since the magazine reported on the house purchase. The story didn’t really catch fire. A mention here, a hint there – that’s it. Not even the corruption hunters from Transparency International, who normally raise the alarm about any suspicion of wrongdoing, really wanted to be outraged.
But that doesn’t mean that sparks can’t still be struck from such a story. Elections will be held in Berlin on February 12. There is a lot at stake for the coalition of SPD, Greens and Left Party. Appearance of the public prosecutor’s office in Berlin, where one remembered: There was something there? Just in time for the start of the election campaign, it has now been decided to initiate a formal examination as to whether the Bundestag should be asked to lift MP Lindner’s immunity.
The public prosecutor’s office has no indication of accepting an advantage, and where should it come from? All she has in her hands is the October article. There is not even an initial suspicion. But that doesn’t mean in the corruption department of the Berlin Attorney General’s Office that you can’t still take action when it comes to someone like the FDP chairman. And because we are in Berlin, the whole thing finds its way into the media without any problems. What would an internal audit be worth that only the top management or the responsible justice senator knows about, but nobody else? Then you could have given them to each other right away.
“Corruption through credit?” was the headline in the “Tagesspiegel” at the weekend, which was well informed about the confidential process. Corruption was not even mentioned in “Spiegel”. But whatever. There’s a question mark after it. It goes on to say that no reference to specific official actions is necessary for an advantage to be accepted. Rather, it is important to prevent public officials from creating the “mere appearance of venality”.
With that, the story has finally reached the level of the innuendo. You can never defend yourself against appearances, especially not as a top politician. Appearance is always in the eye of the beholder, that’s the tricky thing about it. Unlike court-proof allegations, it is purely subjective and thus relieved of the burden of the factual.
Next week we will read again that the quality of the political staff is declining because the good people have all gone into business. Anyone who is still pursuing a political career today must either be tired of life – or really have no other alternative. Why would someone with a career in mind choose life as a political leader? The compliance departments in companies sometimes go crazy too. But at least you don’t end up in the press right away when you’re hooked.
It is of course a total coincidence that the public prosecutor’s office in Berlin remembered the old story from the autumn five weeks before the election date. And it is certain that the Senator for Justice had no influence whatsoever on the proceedings. She’s probably just as amazed as I am at what’s possible in Berlin. On the other hand: Lindner was lucky. With others, a camera team is practically at the door when the public prosecutor’s office arrives.
For the investigators, the staging of investigations as a media event has no consequences. If, after a detailed examination, they come to the conclusion that the allegations are not sufficient to initiate criminal proceedings, they just close the file cover again.
Because there was never a formal procedure, there is no formal exoneration for the person accused in the newspapers. What remains is the more or less openly expressed suspicion that things may not have gone right for him. If nothing had happened, nobody in the public prosecutor’s office would have felt compelled to start an investigation, would they? It has come full circle.
Did I already mention that the Senator for Justice in Berlin is from the Left Party? In Germany, public prosecutors are bound by instructions. There is no evidence that Lena Kreck, as the senator is called, encouraged the corruption department to take action against the finance minister. But, as we know, it’s all about appearances. In such a prominent position as that of a justice senator, everything must be avoided that could even give the appearance of exerting influence, regardless of specific official actions.
I’m afraid the Berlin Public Prosecutor’s Office can’t avoid investigating whether they should initiate investigations against the Justice Senator on suspicion of abuse of office. She owes that to her reputation, doesn’t she?
• Read all of Jan Fleischhauer’s columns here.
The readers love him or hate him, Jan Fleischhauer is indifferent to the least. You only have to look at the comments on his columns to get an idea of how much people are moved by what he writes. He was at SPIEGEL for 30 years, and at the beginning of August 2019 he switched to FOCUS as a columnist.
Fleischhauer himself sees his task as giving voice to a world view that he believes is underrepresented in the German media. So when in doubt, against the herd instinct, commonplaces and stereotypes. His texts are always amusing – perhaps it is this fact that provokes his opponents the most.
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