German lawmakers to quiz ex-Wirecard boss on Berlin’s position
© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Braun of Wirecard AG attends the company’s annual news conference in Aschheim
By Christian Kraemer and John O’Donnell
BERLIN/FRANKFURT (Reuters) – German lawmakers will question the former boss of collapsed payments firm Wirecard about its contacts with government on Thursday, as they investigate Berlin’s role in the biggest corporate fraud in post-war Germany.
Their inquiry into the implosion of a German tech star once worth $28 billion, which folded owing billions, increases pressure on German chancellor Angela Merkel and Finance Minister Olaf Scholz ahead of national elections next year.
Wirecard’s demise has embarrassed the German government, which prides itself on a reputation for rectitude and reliability, amid criticism that authorities ignored red flags.
State prosecutors in Munich have charged Wirecard’s former chief executive Markus Braun with fraud and embezzlement, alleging that he covered up the true state of its finances to hoodwink investors.
Braun, who denies any wrongdoing and has said Wirecard was the victim of a wider fraud, is in jail awaiting trial. His lawyer did not respond to a request for comment on Thursday.
“Investigators see Braun as the ‘Godfather’ in the Wirecard fraud,” Fabio De Masi, one of the lawmakers, told Reuters. “Who in government helped him? We want to know what happened.”
Police are searching for another former top Wirecard manager, Jan Marsalek.
Lawmakers told Reuters they will ask Braun about his contact with German officials and, in particular, about a meeting he had in November 2019 with deputy finance minister Joerg Kukies.
German authorities have rejected any suggestion of improper government influence involving Wirecard.
Asked on Thursday by Reuters about Braun’s meeting with Kukies in late 2019, the Finance Ministry referred to an earlier statement that the talks touched on topics including allegations of market manipulation, as well as, more generally, cryptocurrencies and the business model of payment firms.
Florian Toncar, a liberal party lawmaker who will question Braun, told Reuters he wanted to know more about Wirecard’s lobbying of government and regulators.
“We want to know … which politicians and authorities he had contact with and what they talked about,” Danyal Bayaz, a key Green-party lawmaker involved in the inquiry, told Reuters.
Scholz, who heads Germany’s finance ministry and is responsible for regulator BaFin, has also been criticised for the authorities’ failure to take Wirecard to task, spending years probing the company’s critics instead.
Scholz has since pledged to tighten financial controls to prevent a repeat fraud.
The Wirecard affair has also reached Germany’s chancellery.
The government has said Merkel brought up Wirecard’s planned takeover of a company in China during a visit there in September 2019 and that a senior official in her office subsequently pledged further support to Wirecard.
In an official parliamentary response, it said that Merkel did not know at the time of the irregularities at Wirecard, which was dismantled after its disclosure of a 1.9 billion euro hole in its accounts in June triggered its insolvency.
Prosecutors have also faced criticism for failing to spot problems at Wirecard, instead probing journalists at the Financial Times, which first published allegations relating to its accounting.