AfD Campaign Finance Trouble A Right-Wing Populist Slush Fund Exposed
The right-wing populist party Alternative for Germany is already embroiled in a campaign donation scandal. But documents obtained by DER SPIEGEL show that more trouble could be on the horizon due to a murky slush fund used in the party's early days.
The email provided a window on the developing campaign. On Jan. 8, 2013, Bernd Lucke informed his associates of "important developments" for the Wahlalternative 2013, as the precursor to the right-wing populist party Alternative for Germany (AfD) was called. Among the recipients was Alexander Gauland, the present-day co-leader of the party.
The fall election is a "great challenge," Lucke wrote, but the work was proceeding apace. Already, he continued, hundreds of volunteers had offered their services and progress was also being made on donations: "We have high hopes for significantly improved funding," wrote the economics professor. A Munich-based PR agency, he wrote, had facilitated ties with a group of "politically interested mid-sized companies" who wanted to "focus their political support on the Wahlalternative." Lucke noted in his email that "it won't be a six-digit amount of cash, because some of the support will consist of press conferences, but they are also important, and cash will hopefully be part of it."
Four weeks after that email was sent, the Alternative for Germany was officially launched. And the new party could indeed rejoice over donations from rich patrons, as illustrated by documents and emails that have been obtained by DER SPIEGEL and by the Swiss weekly newspaper Die Wochenzeitung (WOZ). But they weren't always strictly legal.
In total, business leaders, industry lobbyists and asset managers injected hundreds of thousands of euros into the new party. Many of the donors were elderly and had plenty of money at their disposal. That seed money was one reason why the AfD could become such a significant player in the German political party landscape within just a few months of its founding.
Only very few donors, however, wanted to publicize their support of the party. For some of the bequests, delicate financial structures were established that pushed the legal envelope to its very limit, all in the name of preserving donor anonymity.
The documents obtained by DER SPIEGEL and WOZ also indicate that in the first years of its existence, the AfD maintained a slush fund to which only very few leading functionaries had access, first and foremost Konrad Adam, who led the party for several years. The fund was discretely used to finance campaign appearances.
The AfD's financial tricks appear to have violated the German Political Parties Act in several instances. That law clearly lays out that all contributions in excess of 10,000 euros per year must be documented in the public statement of accounts, a requirement that also applies to in-kind donations. Attempts to conceal donations, for example by breaking them up into several payments or donating via a front man, are impermissible. The law is meant to ensure that the public knows who is exerting influence on a political party.
Should the allegations prove accurate, the AfD could find itself facing fines in the hundreds of thousands of euros.
It isn't the first time that the law-and-order party's finances have attracted unwanted attention. For months, the AfD has been embroiled in a separate donation scandal, with the Administration of the German Bundestag, the country's federal parliament, fining the party 400,000 euros earlier this year due to an illegal donation from Switzerland, although the AfD has appealed the penalty.
Dubious party finances are likely to be a point of discussion at the AfD's party conference this weekend. The leadership, to be sure, has done its best to dodge all questions pertaining to the donation scandals. But many delegates are bothered by the apparent double standard of their party, which claims to practice a "sincere" brand of politics that is "not influenced by interest groups or lobbyists," but which also seems more than willing to accept significant amounts of money from wealthy donors.
AfD Spokesmen Jörg Meuthen and the party's parliamentary group leader, Alice Weidel, have faced significant pressure as a result of the murky money flows. Party head Alexander Gauland, meanwhile, has been able to sidestep the worst of it and is set to be voted in as honorary party chairman this weekend. But the documents that have now been leaked show that he was well aware of the questionable financial practices from the very beginning.
It all started in summer 2012, well before the refugee crisis. At the time, the anti-Merkel camp was still focusing most of its energies on the efforts being made to save the European common currency, the euro. Economist Bernd Lucke, journalist Konrad Adam and former newspaper journalist Alexander Gauland didn't want to "stand by and do nothing as doom approached." They composed the founding manifesto for Wahlalternative 2013 and began looking for supporters. It was clear to them from the very beginning, though, that the new movement would need a significant amount of both money and backers. "We will, of course, have to solicit donations," Lucke wrote.
Through his brother-in-law, Lucke got to know a group of EU-skeptics in the town of Bad Nauheim, just north of Germany's financial center of Frankfurt. One of them was Norbert Stenzel, the head of a cement company. In the 1980s, Stenzel had been the treasurer for the local chapter of the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and thus had contacts to the financial trickster Casimir Prince zu Sayn-Wittgenstein, who had been deeply embroiled in a CDU party donation scandal in the state at the time. Now, Stenzel wanted to take advantage of Sayn-Wittgenstein's expertise to help the Wahlalternative.
On Nov. 30, 2012, Stenzel, Adam and others founded the Association for the Support of Wahlalternative 2013, opened a bank account and began soliciting donations. It became clear early on that the euroskeptics had struck a nerve in certain circles and in the ensuing months, hundreds of donations came flooding in. Most of them were small, in the hundreds of euros or less. But some donors proved more generous: a confectioner from the state of Lower Saxony, for example, sent 5,000 euros. All together, the amount donated to the association by the end of 2013 amounted to 60,865.73 euros -- money which ended up flowing primarily into the coffers of the AfD in ensuing years, with the public being none the wiser.
For the time being, though, Lucke continued pursuing his goal of transforming the loosely organized Wahlalternative into a real political party. And on Feb. 6, 2013, 18 men gathered for the official founding of the Alternative for Germany. Lucke was elected chairman and Gauland was chosen as his deputy.
Lucke estimated that the costs for that year's federal election campaign would amount to around 3 million euros. "We can only attract enough attention using posters, advertisements and radio and TV spots," he wrote to confidants. "All of that costs money." It was likely clear to Lucke that small donations would not be enough to propel the party into the Bundestag.
As such, it must have been a great relief for Lucke that he was able to consummate the coup with the Munich-based PR agency. The owner, Dagmar Metzger, Lucke wrote, used to support the Free Voters -- a political alliance that has attained a certain degree of influence in recent election cycles in Bavaria. But, Lucke continued in his message to confidants, Metzger had had "a falling out" with the lead candidate for the Free Voters and was now interested in helping the Wahlalternative through her alliance of small- and mid-sized companies. "Furthermore, she wants to introduce me to a business leader who is disappointed with the Free Voters and who, as she says, isn't bothered by donating 50,000 euros in one go."
Who was he referring to? Perhaps August von Finck, the aging billionaire who, according to insiders, provided the AfD with money and gold on several occasions? A year ago, DER SPIEGEL reported on Metzger's relationship to Finck and her role as a key contact person when it came to AfD party finances. At the time, Finck declined to respond to several requests for comment. Today, Lucke says that the name of the business leader in question is "unknown" to him and the donation was "never realized." Metzger did not respond directly to questions about the donor, instead merely stating that she had assumed at the time that "all donations had been properly documented by the treasurer."
In the months leading up to the 2013 elections, the AfD received several donations from people in Metzger's network. Internal party documents include a file documenting contributions of almost 26,000 euros. The file is labeled "Lucke Donation" and contains transfer vouchers from summer 2013. One of those is for 9,999 euros from the account of BBC Treuhand- und Steuerberatungsgesellschaft AG in Munich, a company for which Dagmar Metzger provided PR services. An additional 6,000 euros were donated by a Munich businessman whose fruit juice company was likewise a client of Metger's. The third and fourth donations, each for 5,000 euros, came from a married couple in the Bavarian town of Deggendorf, according to the documents. By law, the AfD should have declared the total amount of 26,000 in its public statement of accounts, though it was not required to itemize them individually. Was the omission intentional?
When DER SPIEGEL tried to contact the donors, a woman answered the phone in Deggendorf, but hung up immediately. The Munich businessman ask that he be called back later but could then no longer be reached.
The response of Beata Baroth, head of BBC Treuhand- und Steuerberatungsgesellschaft AG, was rather puzzling. She denied that the donation had come from her company, saying it provided "no support to political parties" on principle. When asked whether the 9,999 euros could have been relayed by her company on behalf of someone else, she said she "could not answer for reasons pertaining to tax secrecy." Did the money come from someone who wanted to remain anonymous? The German Political Parties Act forbids the acceptance of such front-man donations.
When contacted for comment, AfD founder Bernd Lucke said that the AfD at the time had established a "sub-account" for donors who "were interested in supporting me specifically." He said, however, that there were "no individual Lucke donations." Still, he said, "there were larger donations from some donors which added up to the low five-digits." He declined, however, to say whether the donors were working together.
The sensitive contacts made via Dagmar Metzger were apparently a topic of conversation among AfD leaders early on. Two former members, Wolf-Joachim Schünemann and Patricia Casale, later recalled debates within the party's executive board about the risks of the nontransparent donation practices. According to Schünemann, current party leader Gauland must have been present at the board meetings. Gauland, however, declined to answer any questions submitted by DER SPIEGEL and party headquarters remained silent as well.
Either way, it has become clear that several donations in excess of 10,000 euros, made to the AfD in its early days, never made it into the party's public statement of accounts. One donation from the U.S., in particular, raises questions. On March 21, 2013, the company Tallahassee Venture Ltd., located in Apopka, Florida, wired $13,500 to the AfD. Behind the company was a real-estate investor from the western German region of Siegerland. According to AfD auditors, the amount was equivalent to 10,407.03 euros at the time -- and was thus subject to the legal requirement that the name and address of the donor-company be listed in the public statement of accounts. But it wasn't. Only the presumed company owner is mentioned with no reference at all to the company in the U.S. and a different sum of money was listed.
Should the Administration of the Bundestag determine that the donation from Florida was illegal, the AfD would face a potential fine equivalent to twice the amount of the original donation of around 21,000 euros.
A handout from a businessman from the Lower Rhine region was likewise apparently obfuscated. In June 2013, the AfD held a party event at the horse-racing track in Krefeld, a PR action that ultimately ended up costing 11,900 euros. The entire tab was generously picked up by Gerald Wagener, who was co-owner of a food wholesaler at the time.
Those sorts of in-kind donations must also be reported in a party's public statement of accounts if they exceed 10,000 euros. But Wagener and the AfD apparently dug into the bag of tricks to circumvent the requirement. Following the campaign event in Krefeld, Wagener wrote the party: "As requested, the vendor divided up the costs into invoices of 3,000 euros. I hope that is what the AfD wanted." He added that he would be grateful if the party could send him a donation receipt. Among the AfD documents, there are four donation receipts sent to Wagener and his relatives, each for 2,975 euros.
When contacted for comment, Wagener admitted to having covered the costs of the event, but he did not answer a question as to why the invoices had been divided up. The donation did not make an appearance in the party's public statement of accounts, meaning the AfD could face an additional fine of 35,700 euros.
An additional donation received by the party in its early days came from fund manager Gottfried Heller, who donated 12,000 euros divided into eight tranches and sent from four different bank accounts. Heller even sent along a table documenting the different payments. In his case, however, those responsible in the AfD bookkeeping department apparently got cold feet, and Heller was correctly listed in the party's 2013 public statement of accounts.
Other AfD patrons found legal pathways to make their support for the party invisible. The company Monamed GmbH, for example, sent the AfD 9,999 euros, thus remaining just under the reporting threshold. The former Federation of German Industries (BDI) head, Heinrich Weiss, sent precisely 10,000 euros in 2013 and again in 2014, a single cent below the limit. Other donors also came close to the limit without exceeding it.
Some supporters, though, were prepared to dig a bit deeper into their pockets and apparently weren't particularly concerned about their names getting publicized. The Hamburg-based shipping company owner Folkard Edler and his wife, for example, each donated 50,000 euros to the AfD in 2013. Both of those contributions were accurately reported in the party's public statement of accounts. Later, Edler would also supply the AfD with a multimillion-euro loan with extremely advantageous conditions attached. The generosity of the shipping-company owner was more than welcome within the party: "It is self-evident that such donors must be granted VIP status," the Hamburg treasurer wrote to fellow party members.
Plagued by Cash Shortages
The party was likely successful in securing such donations because of its business-friendly economic policies. Gauland may be fond of insisting that the AfD is a "party for everyday people," but that claim is not backed up by party policies. In one letter to potential donors, for example, the AfD pledged that it was in favor of a "drastic simplification of tax policy" a reform that would particularly benefit high earners.
Without the financial injections from business leaders, it is doubtful whether the AfD would have grown as rapidly as it did. Yet even so, the young party was plagued by cash shortages during its first parliamentary election campaign. The closer the day of the election approached, the emptier party coffers became, until at some point, someone in the AfD leadership remembered the old Association for the Support of Wahlalternative 2013. The official founding of the AfD had made the association superfluous, but its account was still filled with around 50,000 euros in donor money. Stenzel, the head of the association, had by then become the AfD's national treasurer and his deputy Konrad Adam was national spokesman.
The temptation to dig into the association's account to benefit the party was apparently irresistible, and internal emails, invoices and bank statements clearly show how the association was transformed into an AfD slush fund. High-ranking functionaries and select party chapters used the money for their campaigns, apparently without documentation in the party's books.
The trickery was modest at first, with a minor event shortly before the 2013 election. Party spokesman Adam was a candidate and made an appearance in the state of Hesse. But the rental costs for the local auditorium of 510 euros was paid for by the association.
Adam wouldn't remain the only beneficiary. DER SPIEGEL is in possession of a report from an audit of the association that reveals a number of payments made for the benefit of the AfD. There is, for example, an invoice for 4,998 euros addressed to the association from December 2014 for the "placement, removal and disposal of campaign posters in Thuringia."
The AfD in Lower Saxony also benefited. In the audit report, there are also three invoices from a newspaper publisher to the state AfD chapter. The three invoices are labelled "AfD election campaign," and are for a total of 8,300 euros, money that went toward full-page ads, online advertising and 112,500 campaign inserts. The printing company that produced the inserts invoiced an additional 2,678.35 euros. In total, the AfD chapter in Lower Saxony apparently benefited from almost 11,000 euros from the association's account. An inquiry as to how this money was accounted for in the party's books went unanswered.
'Neither Ethically Nor Legally Acceptable'
On Feb. 13, 2014, the local AfD chapter in the Hessian town of Hochtaunus requested the reimbursement of campaign costs "incurred by Dr. Konrad Adam in the context of the 2013 federal elections and the state elections in Hesse." The desired sum -- 1,095.40 euros -- was sent to the AfD chapter retroactively from the association account.
But not all of Adam's requests were approved. When he proposed in a March 25 email that the association account be used to pay for a 4,000-euro campaign event in Frankfurt ("What should we use the association account for if not for campaign purposes?"), association head Stenzel grew angry. In a return message to the AfD boss, he noted that the association had already paid for "over 5,000 euros of your campaign activities" and demanded: "How do you think this is supposed to work?" Is he, Stenzel wrote, supposed to pay a 4,000-euro bill using an account that had actually been intended for the old Wahlinitiative? "That is neither ethically nor legally acceptable."
Such concerns, though, apparently didn't prove particularly durable. Just a short time later, in May, the association covered additional invoices generated by Adam's AfD campaign, this time totaling 1,960.53 euros for newspaper advertisements ahead of an event in Frankfurt.
When added together, the audit report shows that the association covered party expenses of 23,285.84 euros in the "audit period 2014." It is a sum that the AfD was legally required to report as a donation from the association in the relevant public statement of accounts. Because it didn't, the AfD likewise faces a possible fine of double the total in this case as well, almost 47,000 euros.
The association was quietly dissolved in 2016, with the remaining 14,000 euros ending up in the coffers of the Desiderius-Erasmus Foundation, which is linked to the AfD. Konrad Adam is the foundation's honorary chairman.
Knee-Deep in Scandal
Norbert Stenzel, the former national treasurer for the AfD, declined to provide comment on the questionable money flows in the early days of the AfD. When contacted, he said that he left the AfD long ago and that the party had picked up all treasury documents in his possession several years ago.
Former party head Adam confirmed that some of his campaign activities had been financed using association funds but insisted that he thought everything had been aboveboard. He said he had assumed that Stenzel and his successors had been adhering to "clean bookkeeping" practices.
Current party treasurer Klaus Fohrmann, who worked as a financial controller for the AfD in the early days of the party, said that it was impossible to provide information from the party's early years in the short time available to him. DER SPIEGEL sent an inquiry one day before the print deadline.
Many former donors, such as Heinrich Weiss, Gottfried Heller and the company Flossbach von Storch AG, have today distanced themselves from the party, which has drifted ever further to the right since its founding.
The fact that most of the donations in question were made several years ago will not help the party with the Administration of the Bundestag. German parliamentary officials could hand down a fine of 133,000 euros for the disguised donations. Still, despite the AfD's numerous party donation scandals, it hasn't seemed to hurt the party among its supporters. At the party conference this weekend, though, the donation issue is scheduled to come up for debate. The relevant petition calls for punitive measures against those who incur fines for the party due to intentional circumvention of campaign finance laws.
The grassroots petition is aimed at those party leaders who have recently been knee-deep in financial scandal, and thus far, Alexander Gauland was not among them. But the 2013 email from Lucke shows that Gauland knew about the practices from the very beginning.