New Allegation Against President Wulff Received Discount on Personal Car Lease
German President Christian Wulff, accused of using his public office for personal gain, is facing a new controversy. In 2010, when he was still a state governor, he received a discount on a Skoda SUV he leased. Critics say the head of state's behavior is undermining efforts to fight corruption.
German automaker Audi's latest creation wasn't scheduled for delivery to dealerships for a few more months, but the critics had already made up their minds about the Q3. In the summer of 2011, the German automotive magazine Auto Motor und Sport raved about the new model's "masculine, aggressive appearance and crisply sculpted headlights," praised its stylish interior and the high-quality workmanship, underscoring the brand's "premium standard."
In other words, the Q3 was a high-quality car, and just the right thing for Germany's First Lady. That, at least, is what Bettina Wulff, the wife of German President Christian Wulff, must have thought to herself when she had a member of staff call someone at Volkswagen to inquire whether she might test-drive the new model, even though the official market introduction was still several months away.
Normally the only people allowed to drive so-called pre-series cars are the company engineers, whose job includes ironing out any remaining defects during the pre-production phase. But when the wife of the German president, who was a member of the supervisory board of Audi's parent company, VW, for many years, shows an interest in a new model, no one wants to be impolite, so the Q3 was brought to Berlin and put at Bettina Wulff's disposal.
But the vehicle didn't quite meet the expectations of the president's wife. The pre-series car from the Audi plant in Ingolstadt in southern Germany had a red license plate. Mrs Wulff wanted to drive around the German capital with ordinary Berlin plates, which have black letters. Not even the board of Germany's largest automobile company could fulfill her request, though. Under German law, pre-series cars can only be driven with special plates showing that the vehicles are being used for testing or delivery purposes. The racy Q3 was sent back to Audi.
In retrospect, Bettina Wulff should be pleased about her aversion to red numbers. Last week Gernot Lehr, the president's busy attorney, was easily able to deflect troublesome questions about how long she had used the pre-series car and whether she had paid for it. In addition, Mrs Wulff was recently able to have her Q3 experience, after all. From Dec. 22 to Jan. 23, she had access to a regular, series-production car, for which she paid Audi 850.01 (about $1,100) in leasing fees.
Nevertheless, the episode illustrates the level of scrutiny the German president is under, eight weeks after the first reports of a dubious private loan for his home near Hanover. Rarely has the personal life of a politician been so closely examined as that of Wulff, a Christian Democrat from the western city of Osnabrück. Never has a German president been so tenaciously pursued by the media.
But the president only has himself to blame. Politicians, journalists and citizens have noted with astonishment how a public servant with a six-figure income hardly misses an opportunity to live life more conveniently, attractively or luxuriously -- regardless of his relationship to his beneficiaries. A bank loan at special terms, a vacation at the holiday home of an insurance company executive, an invitation to Munich from a marmalade manufacturer -- for Wulff, all of these things are completely harmless and above board.
Wulff tries to attribute many of these things to friendly relationships, and some accusations have indeed turned out to be baseless. But in his thirst for glamor and grand gestures, Wulff does more than simply reveal a lack of style, morality and decency. It now appears that he may have broken the law in a previously unknown case of bargain-hunting. At issue, once again, is the "Law Governing the Legal Relationships of Members of the State Government" of Lower Saxony, also known as the Minister Law. This time the situation appears to be serious.
Wulff was the state's governor from 2003 to June 2010. According to Paragraph 5, Section 4 of the Minister Law, ministers and the governor "may not accept rewards and gifts in connection with their office."
Until now, Wulff has justified many free vacations and other benefits by claiming that they were not given to him in connection with his position as governor.
Discount on Skoda Lease
Wulff leased a koda Yeti in 2010. The governor received the small SUV from the VW Group under so-called supervisory board conditions. While ordinary customers pay a monthly lease fee of 1.5 percent of the purchase price, supervisory board members pay only 1 percent.
Accordingly, Wulff only received the discount because he was a member of the supervisory board of the VW Group. But he was only a member of the board because he, as the governor of Lower Saxony, which holds 20 percent of the common stock, represented the state on the supervisory board. A discount of 0.5 percent doesn't sound like much. It corresponds to savings of about 100 a month for a car worth roughly 20,000, or total savings of 1,200 for the duration of the lease. While VW says that it "provides no information about relationships with customers," Wulff's attorney Lehr notes that Wulff "paid the fees that are customary within the VW Group." VW employees can indeed lease cars under the same preferential terms as the then governor. Only ordinary customers pay more.
Perhaps Wulff will again make a gesture of contriteness and be able to brush off this most recent case of accepting a benefit. But even his most loyal supporters are gradually realizing that this is a man who lives in two worlds, and with two different value systems. There is Wulff's world. And there is the rest of the world, in which people must act in accordance with the law or risk losing their jobs -- partly because Wulff, an attorney and former state governor, demands that they live up to the highest standards of morality and decency.
In late 2003, half a year after the CDU politician had assumed office in the state capital Hanover, Lower Saxony set up an anti-corruption hotline to enable anonymous informants to tell police about their observations of suspected cases of corruption.
Two years later, the police were confronted with the so-called grape scandal. After stopping a truck for a routine traffic inspection, a police officer in the Harburg administrative district accepted a bunch of grapes, four stems, to be exact, from the driver. The matter was reported, and a court ordered the officer to pay a 4,200 fine.
Strict Anti-Corruption Standards
In the penultimate year of his term as governor, Wulff introduced a new guideline for state employees, the "Guideline for Preventing and Combating Corruption in the State Administration." Transparency was important, Wulff noted, "so as to avoid even the appearance of anyone seeking to influence the state government."
State government officials in Lower Saxony are strictly prohibited from accepting free travel on vacation trips, accepting train or plane tickets or accepting loans under favorable terms. The guideline ends with the following appeal to state employees: "Set an example. Through your behavior, show that you neither tolerate nor support corruption."
The tough stance being taken by the state, which even sought to avoid so much as the appearance "of being receptive to personal benefits in connection with the performance of official duties," led to a number of court cases. For example, several teachers were prosecuted because an amusement park in the Lüneburger Heide region had sent them free tickets worth 35. The park management was trying to encourage teachers to take their students on outings to the amusement park. A few teachers visited the amusement park in their free time and used the free tickets. In return, they were fined for accepting advantages.
German public servants have been particularly irritated in recent weeks. Why shouldn't the same rules apply to the head of state that apply to ordinary civil servants? How long do I have to be someone's friend before he can invite me to join him on a vacation? And can a former school friend get me an advantageous loan?
Wulff Scandal 'Harming Fight Against Corruption'
Andreas Riegel, head of the organization Transparency International in the Rhineland Region, answers these sorts of questions as part of his job. A retired senior government official, he now offers special courses in which he teaches representatives of companies and government agencies on how to be vigilant against corruption. But Riegel has had trouble being taken seriously recently. The scandal surrounding Wulff, who is also accused of having violated his obligations as a VW supervisory board member, is "absolutely harmful and counterproductive with respect to fighting corruption in Germany," says Riegel.
Anti-corruption officials and prosecutors throughout Germany say similar things. In fact, they have successfully heightened awareness of corruption in recent years. Munich Mayor Christian Ude, for example, gave his civil servants a crystal-clear guideline in 2007: Anyone who accepted gifts without first obtaining approval, Ude himself wrote, could "expect serious consequences, possibly even including the loss of employment with the city and substantial financial losses." It would be preferable, the Social Democratic politician wrote, "not to accept anything at all!"
The list compiled by Ude's lawyers included virtually every possible temptation a civil servant could encounter. The guideline regulates everything from "being picked up at the airport" (permitted) and "alcohol beverages" (permitted if worth less than 15) to "interest-free or low-interest loans" (prohibited).
The guideline reads like a blueprint for the accusations against Wulff. For example, the Munich rules forbid "organizing parties for private purposes," "discounts for individuals," "free or discounted use of vehicles" and the "free or discounted use of lodgings."
Munich city employees visiting the Oktoberfest are permitted to accept one glass of beer and one portion of roast chicken each. Anything more than that can get them into hot water, as employees of the city authority that oversees the Oktoberfest learned. When food and drink coupons for the festival began piling up in the agency's offices, prosecutors investigated a complaint that had been filed against seven employees, and their supervisor was eventually ordered to pay a fine.
On International Anti-Corruption Day, Dec. 9, 2011, shortly before the details of loans relating to Wulff's house purchase became public, the German Interior Ministry published a manual that explains how all federal employees are to treat gifts. According to the new guidelines, cash and items equivalent to cash are generally forbidden, and civil servants are even required to report small gifts to their respective departments. Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich praised the publication as an important step that "strengthens integrity."
Integrity Being Destroyed
Seen in this light, the scandal surrounding the German president feels like an integrity destruction program. Karl-Georg Wellmann, a CDU member of the German Bundestag who suggested in early January that Wulff resign, appealed directly to his party's leadership, saying: "It is becoming increasingly difficult to explain to our members that we pay painstakingly close attention to our employees at the zoning office not accepting any advantages, and yet we are simply wiping away such charges against the president." Some members of his local party organization, Wellmann said, had already quit in protest.
An end to the negative headlines on Wulff is not in sight. In late January, specialists in Hanover gained access to an encoded folder on the work computer of Wulff's former presidential spokesman, Olaf Glaeseker, who was dismissed in December. Glaeseker had also been Wulff's spokesman when Wulff was Lower Saxony state governor. Many of the files contain press releases and memos from Wulff's days in Lower Saxony. They also contain guest lists from the so-called "North-South Dialogue," a series of business conferences organized by a private event management firm, for which Wulff was criticized and for which charges were filed against Glaeseker for allegedly accepting bribes.
The documents also include emails from Bettina Wulff. In one email titled "North meets South," she provides her husband's office with the names of individuals ("just a few late arrivals ") to be invited, including her best friend and the best friend's husband.
In January, Wulff's staff was still claiming that the North-South dialogue was a private event sponsored by Cologne party organizer Manfred Schmidt. Over the course of the last few weeks, it gradually turned into a party hosted by the State of Lower Saxony, and by Wulff and Glaeseker.
The emails, which the investigators discovered by accident, demonstrate once against that the Wulffs were mixing private and official matters. In one case Bettina Wulff, who worked for the press department of the Rossmann drugstore chain in 2009, requested a ticket for a colleague; in another, she had a former co-worker at Continental AG placed on a guest list. And on Nov. 20, 2009, the governor's office manager noted: "Mrs. Wulff wants to know whether the Brune family from Bremen is also invited to the North-South dialogue."
Bremen residents Marc and Jens Brune are the owners of the Seestag Hotel on the resort island of Norderney, where the Wulffs have spent several relaxing vacations.
JAN FRIEDMAN, MICHAEL FRÖHLINGSDORF, HUBERT GUDE, DIETMAR HAWRANEK, PETER MÜLLER, BARBARA SCHMID, ANDREAS ULRICH
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan