Parliament heard fresh charges of money laundering and possible bribery surrounding former chancellor Helmut Kohl and his Christian Democratic party today as Germany's political establishment was jolted by the suicide of a senior party finance official.
With the Christian Democrats' reputation crumbling in one of the country's most explosive political scandals since World War II, Wolfgang Huellen, head of the party's budget and finance section in Parliament, was found dead at his home. Police said Huellen left a note citing personal motives for his decision to hang himself.
While party officials sought to dampen speculation that his death was related to the scandal, the news stunned Parliament as it launched a full-scale investigation into the murky financial dealings of Kohl and the Christian Democratic Union he led for 25 years.
An 11-member parliamentary committee headed by the governing alliance of Social Democrats and Greens will examine whether secret funds diverted to the Christian Democrats were actually bribes or kickbacks linked to favorable actions taken by governments under Kohl's leadership.
What began two months ago as a minor case of suspected tax evasion by the Christian Democratic Union's former treasurer has become a political earthquake. It has tarnished Kohl's legacy as Europe's leading statesman, hurt the integrity of the nation's leadership and raised doubts about the survival of the Christian Democratic Union, the mainstream conservative party that has governed Germany for the majority of the postwar era.
The legislative inquiry involving Kohl, who is expected to be called as one of its first witnesses, will delve into the origins, purpose and scope of the secret slush funds that he has acknowledged handling during his 16 years in power, a tenure that ended in 1998 with the Christian Democrats' defeat in national elections. The former chancellor also faces a separate breach of trust investigation, a criminal procedure that, if it leads to a conviction, would carry a maximum five-year prison sentence.
Despite the enormous harm inflicted on his reputation as the architect of German unity, Kohl has refused to reveal the identity of donors to the funds, saying he gave his "word of honor" that they would remain anonymous. He says they gave him up to $1 million that he used to help needy political allies, but a Christian Democratic party audit shows at least five times that amount may have passed through Kohl's special accounts.
Two days after the party's executive board stripped Kohl of his role as honorary chairman, his successor as party leader, Wolfgang Schaeuble, opened today's session in the Bundestag, the lower house of Parliament, with an apology for the misdeeds of Kohl and the party. Schaeuble said he regretted having deceived the legislature about his role in accepting an illegal $52,000 contribution from an arms dealer, and he promised his party would do everything in its power to help Parliament clarify lingering mysteries about the funding scandal.
"I apologize for the fact that, under our responsibility, laws were quite clearly broken and faith in the integrity of our democratic institutions was damaged," Schaeuble told the lawmakers. Both he and Kohl have acknowledged violating a law that requires the reporting of any political donation larger than $10,500.
Volker Neumann, a Social Democrat and legislator who will serve as chairman of the parliamentary inquiry, said the probe could last two years. He indicated that the accumulating evidence suggests that Kohl and the Christian Democrats received funds that were connected to decisions they made while in power. "I think we are getting closer to the truth," Neumann said. "The government of the day was for sale." He declined to provide details to support his assertion.
Neumann said the investigation will focus on four main issues. One concerns the 1992 sale of the Leuna oil refinery and a chain of gasoline stations in eastern Germany to the French company Elf-Aquitaine, which was then state-owned. At least $40 million from the sale remains unaccounted for, and there are strong suspicions that some money may have been siphoned off to the Christian Democrats. French officials have indicated that then-president Francois Mitterrand was eager to assist Kohl because he had established a trusting relationship with the German leader.
A second area of inquiry concerns the sale of tanks to Saudi Arabia and aircraft to Canada that involved a German-Canadian arms dealer, Karlheinz Schreiber. A strong backer of the Christian Democrats who is now fighting extradition from Canada, Schreiber gave a bag of cash to Schaeuble and at least one other gift of $520,000 that went into the party's secret coffers, the party leader has acknowledged.
In what appears to be a possible plea bargain offer to German authorities, Schreiber says he is willing to describe much more about shady financing practices and predicts that the details "could be so nasty that they will rock the entire Federal Republic of Germany."
A third subject involves the suspected laundering of funds for the Christian Democrats through banks in Switzerland and Liechtenstein. Manfred Kanther, who served as interior minister in Kohl's cabinet, resigned from Parliament this week after asserting that, as the Christian Democratic leader in the state of Hesse, he illegally moved millions of dollars in party funds in and out of Swiss accounts.
The funds, which were disguised as bequests from Jewish donors, have attracted the interest of investigators who say they still do not know where the money--said to amount to as much as $15 million--came from. Kanther said the party nest egg grew from a base of $4 million through shrewd investments, but he still has not said who provided the original stake.
Lastly, Parliament is expected to pursue the Swiss banking connection to see how much actually went through Kohl's web of secret accounts. Angela Merkel, general secretary of the Christian Democratic Union, said an audit to be published this weekend shows that Kohl's secret funds totaled at least five times more than the $1 million he claims and that the flow of money "involved methods similar to money laundering."
The expanding scope of the scandal has caused deep divisions within the Christian Democrats, between those supporting Schaeuble's leadership and a younger generation that wants to clean house to complete the break with Kohl's system and ensure the party's survival. At an emergency meeting Tuesday, the party's executive board spurned Schaeuble's offer to resign, largely because there was no agreement on a successor. But while stripping Kohl of his post as honorary chairman, the board shied away from demanding that he surrender his seat in Parliament.
By leaving the legislature, Kohl would lose his immunity to prosecution. But younger members of the Christian Democrats have stepped up pressure on the former chancellor in recent days, saying his departure from the Bundestag is the only recourse after his refusal to comply with the law and name his benefactors.
"Breaking with Kohl is just the first step toward recovery," said Peter Altmaier, a 40-year-old Christian Democratic member of Parliament who is regarded as a leading figure of "the wild bunch," as the younger members are called by party elders. "Nobody can place himself above the law, and as long as Kohl does this he continues to hurt the party that he says he loves."
Without Kohl's departure and a radical purge of the leadership, many young Christian Democrats in Parliament fear there are slim hopes of restoring public confidence in the party. Since the scandal erupted in early December, support for the Christian Democrats has plunged 15 points in opinion polls, to 29 percent. At the same time, the ruling Social Democrats have seen their approval rating rise seven points, to 44 percent.