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HomeAustriaProsecutors close in on Austria’s Sebastian Kurz after former aide flips

Prosecutors close in on Austria’s Sebastian Kurz after former aide flips

Former senior finance ministry official implicated the ex-chancellor and his People’s Party in an alleged scheme to misuse taxpayer funds.

A central figure in the scandal that forced Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz to resign last year has agreed to testify against his former boss, marking a dramatic turn in a sweeping probe that has exposed systemic corruption in the Alpine nation’s political system.

In testimony to federal prosecutors, Thomas Schmid, a former senior finance ministry official and Kurz confidant, implicated the ex-chancellor and his People’s Party in an alleged scheme to misuse taxpayer funds to first commission and then publish doctored opinion polls that reflected positively on the young politician.

The alleged manipulation began when Kurz was foreign minister in 2016 and vying to become chancellor, a goal he achieved the following year at the age of 31.

“I supported Kurz and the Austrian People’s Party from the finance ministry, employing the resources of the ministry to promote the advancement of the party under Sebastian Kurz,” Schmid, who at the time was the most senior civil servant in the finance ministry, told prosecutors, according to a transcript.

Kurz denies any wrongdoing and said on Wednesday that Schmid was lying to save his own skin.

“I look forward to proving these allegations are false,” Kurz, who now works for the billionaire Peter Thiel, said in a Facebook post.

While the details of the alleged scheme came to light a year ago, triggering Kurz’s sudden resignation, it remained unclear whether prosecutors had enough evidence to pursue a criminal case.

Legal experts say a prosecution of Kurz is now likely, raising the possibility that he could face prison time. The former chancellor faces a separate probe into allegations that he lied in testimony to parliament in 2020 about his role in a plan to appoint Schmid as head of the company that manages Austria’s holdings in former state-owned enterprises. Kurz denied direct involvement in the job selection, a lucrative appointment in which Schmid received a salary of about €600,000 per year.

Schmid, who was forced to resign last year after details of his behind-the-scenes role in Kurz’s political machine became public, began cooperating with the corruption investigation in secret in June, submitting to 15 full days of questioning in the hopes of reaching a plea deal, according to prosecutors. His testimony, covering more than 450 pages, was filed in court on Tuesday.

Though Kurz is the most prominent figure under investigation in the probe, he is far from alone and the accusations he faces are just part of a much larger puzzle.

All told, corruption prosecutors are pursuing about 45 individuals — a group that includes former ministers, tabloid editors, prominent businessmen and members of Kurz’s inner circle — over allegations that range from intervening in tax probes on behalf of wealthy supporters to feeding a prominent tabloid with advertising in return for favorable coverage.

The fake polls in question, which portrayed Kurz as a strong leader trusted by the public, appeared in the tabloid Österreich, which investigators say received government-sponsored advertising in return. The paper‘s publishers deny any wrongdoing.

In one of the more colorful episodes under scrutiny, a former finance minister is alleged to have sought to use his office to sell 1,000 bottles of wine that he had produced to a casino operator regulated by the government.

The suspected crimes in ongoing investigations include fraud, bribery and giving false testimony.

The prosecutors’ investigation began in 2019 in the wake of the so-called Ibiza affair, which involved a video filmed in secret on the Spanish island featuring former Vice Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache trying to sell influence to a woman he believed to be the niece of a Russian oligarch, but who in reality was an imposter.

The release of the video forced Strache, then the leader of the far-right Freedom Party, to resign and brought down Kurz’s first government. Kurz was not directly implicated, however, and his People’s Party won a subsequent election, forming a new government with the Greens.  

The young Austrian premier, who many in Europe regarded as a model for conservative politicians across the Continent, looked stronger than ever — until the authorities seized Schmid’s phone as part of the Ibiza investigation, that is.

Schmid tried to erase its contents, but investigators were able to restore the messages, unearthing a cache of 300,000 text exchanges between the former official and scores of interlocutors in government and the private sector, including Kurz and his top aides.

Many of the chats were more comical than scandalous, including one in which Schmid professed his “love” for Kurz.

Yet after nearly four years of bombshell revelations, resignations and other fallout triggered by the contents of Schmid’s phone, few are still laughing. The chats lifted the veil on a system of cronyism and patronage in Austria’s government, the depth of which has shocked even the most jaded observers of the country’s politics.

Austrians disenchanted with their political class could be forgiven for believing the country had put the worst behind it following Kurz’s resignation last year.

Schmid’s decision to turn against his former idol suggests Austria’s political drama is far from over.  

Austria‘s current government, led by Karl Nehammer, also of the People‘s Party, has lost public support, according to polls, which put the party in third place behind the Social Democrats and the Freedom Party.

The next election isn’t scheduled until the fall of 2024. Whether the People’s Party can hold on for that long amid the flurry of revelations surrounding Kurz and his cronies is another question.

Source: Politico

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