German President under Pressure Prosecutors May Petition to Lift Wulff's Immunity
The list of dubious dealings involving scandal-plagued German President Christian Wulff just keeps getting longer. But public prosecutors are hampered from investigating the allegations because of Wulff's immunity as head of state. Now they are considering the nuclear option: asking parliament to revoke his protection. By SPIEGEL Staff
Nowadays, being seen as a friend of the German president can be awkward, exhausting and even dangerous. David Groenewold, 38, a film producer, networker and party animal, was truly a close friend of President Christian Wulff for a number of years. Acquaintances of the Berlin-based businessman say that he sat down a few weeks ago and wrote out a list of incidents that could prove to be uncomfortable for him or Wulff.
There are 12 items on the list. For Groenewold, the most worrisome incident appeared to be the short vacation he spent with Wulff and his wife on the island of Sylt from Oct. 31 to Nov. 3, 2007, because he had no receipts as documentation. All he remembered was that he had paid for the Wulffs' suite in the Hotel Stadt Hamburg with his credit card, at 258 ($343) a night. Groenewold called the hotel to ask for a copy of the bill, but the staff was uncooperative at first.
Groenewold drove to Sylt to resolve the matter. The hotel's executive secretary gave him the copies, at which point he jokingly asked, in front of two other employees, whether it might not be possible to tear the page documenting Wulff's visit out of the guest register. Everyone had a good laugh, says Groenewold's acquaintance.
Last week, a different version of Groenewold's intervention on the island of Sylt appeared in the German tabloid Bild. According to the hotel records, the film producer called the hotel on Jan. 16 and requested that it release "no information" about him and the fact that he had paid the Wulff's hotel bill to curious members of the media. A to-do list addressed to staff members includes the following instruction: "So if Bild or Spiegel calls, we don't know anything!" When Bild asked Wulff's attorney who paid for the vacation, he replied: "Mr. Wulff reimbursed Mr. Groenewold for the disbursed costs of his stay on the premises of the Hotel Stadt Hamburg." The payment was allegedly made in cash.
Blessed with Friendships
Whenever the scandals surrounding the former governor and current president seemed to peter out in recent weeks, a new incident from the life of Christian Wulff, who seems blessed with many good friendships, came to light. Many of the stories are not significant enough to get public prosecutors in the northern German city of Hanover hot under the collar. Groenewold had paid for a number of things in advance and, as he says, his friend Wulff had reimbursed him in cash. But the trip to Sylt has caught the attention of prosecutors, because only a few months separated the granting of a 4 million ($5.3 million) guarantee by the state of Lower Saxony, of which Wulff was governor from 2003 to 2010, for the benefit of a film company in which Groenewold's production company had held a 50 percent share, and the vacation.
The public prosecutor's office, which the public, politicians and some criminal law professors have accused for weeks of being inactive in the Wulff case, sees something new in this "chronological proximity." Last week, Germany narrowly avoided a political scandal that would have been unprecedented in its history: the launch of a preliminary investigation into the president.
The public prosecutor's office would probably have launched the proceedings if the case had involved an ordinary government official; the initial suspicion that Wulff may have accepted a benefit would have been sufficient grounds for an investigation. But the president lives and works in a sphere that is protected by the German constitution, and is therefore off-limits to the prosecution. As long as he continues to enjoy immunity, no public prosecutor's office can investigate him, question witnesses, request files or seize documents. It can only use publicly accessible sources, which includes watching television and reading newspapers.
Should prosecutors file a petition for the repeal of the president's immunity with the German parliament, the Bundestag, purely on the basis of newspaper articles? This is what the fathers of the constitution had intended, but it's also likely that they didn't anticipate what sort of a politician would one day assume Germany's highest-ranking office.
Caught in a Dilemma
The head of the corruption division of the Hanover public prosecutor's office has been in his position for 15 years. He has rarely felt as uncomfortable as he does today. He is not interested in publicity, and he insists that journalists promise not to publish his name. But last week he felt a need to discuss the matter and solicit sympathy for his plight. More than 100 citizens have submitted complaints. The gist of their argument is that any civil servant in the country would have been charged with accepting benefits or bribery by now.
Indeed, if a case involved the suspicion that, say, the director of a local zoning office had accepted a bribe from a developer, the prosecutor's office could discreetly look at evidence related to the two individuals. It could examine order books, check account statements and trace cash transactions -- and if the pieces of the puzzle produced an overall picture that reinforced the suspicions, prosecutors could also question witnesses or petition for search warrants.
It ought to be possible to conduct an unbiased preliminary investigation, but that isn't an option when it comes to Germany's head of state. The prosecutors in the corruption division, two men and two women, feel caught in a classic dilemma. If they do nothing, they will be accused of dealing too lightly with the highest-ranking politician in the country. If they petition for the repeal of his immunity but end up finding no relevant evidence during their investigations, they could very well have ruined Wulff's career and compromised the office of the president.
The corruption investigators debated long and hard last week -- and finally decided to do nothing for the moment. On Tuesday, the Hanover public prosecutor's office told the news agency DPA that they had still not reached a decision on whether to petition for a lifting of Wulff's immunity, but that they were looking into the matter with "great seriousness."
Happy to Oblige
It would be difficult, however, to refute Wulff's and Groenewold's claims that they liked to settle their debts in cash. There is also no question that they trust each other, or that the film producer would put up a few hundred euros in advance to cover Wulff's expenses.
Groenewold and Wulff met in the central German city of Goslar in 2003, during the filming of a TV drama called "Das Wunder von Lengede" (known in English as "A Light in Dark Places"). The film executive, whom acquaintances describe as popular and charismatic, introduced the aloof politician to the glamorous world of stars and starlets. Wulff took the bait and was soon supporting legislation to protect tax benefits for investors in film funds. Groenewold even visited the governor's office in January 2006, to campaign for special fiscal treatment for his investment model.
When Groenewold describes his relationship with Wulff to friends, he tells them the story of a time when he was terribly lovesick. A fashion model to whom he had been engaged left him shortly before the wedding, an incident that Groenewold says caused him to lose 15 kilograms (33 pounds). Wulff, he says, was always there for him during this difficult period. He also spent many weekends with Wulff's associate Olaf Glaeseker.
Conversely, his good friend Groenewold was, of course, happy to oblige when Wulff wanted to make confidential phone calls. Groenewold got him a mobile phone. On Oct. 26, 2005, the two friends even signed an agreement, which SPIEGEL has obtained. It reads: "David Groenewold conveys to Wulff the Nokia mobile phone/SIM card with the phone number XXXXX (SIM card) for use in return for a fee." Groenewold says that Wulff returned the mobile phone after a few months and paid him what he owed -- in cash, of course.
The lending of the mobile phone was another of the 12 items on Groenewold's list. However, it's unlikely that prosecutors will be interested in the phone. The government officials are, however, paying great attention to the way the state government in Lower Saxony is trying to contain the damage in the scandal.
A Burden for His Party
Wulff still has loyal supporters within the state branch of his party, the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU), but most of his fellow party members have somewhat distanced themselves from him. Opposition politicians gleefully describe heated arguments between CDU politicians in the men's room at the state parliament. Wulff's successor David McAllister promises transparency, but stops short of dissociating himself from his predecessor.
The scandal appears to be turning into a burden in the upcoming state parliamentary election in January 2013. The center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) had originally planned to file a suit before the state's highest court over Wulff's alleged failure to properly inform the state parliament about the state's participation in a series of parties known as the North-South Dialogue. Last week the Social Democrats decided to target the McAllister government with their complaint instead, arguing that it too had not told the parliament the truth. The SPD is even considering setting up a parliamentary investigative committee, which the Left Party and the Greens have already called for. If that happens, it could keep the debate going until the state election.
Wulff could avert all this trouble by resigning. But no one in the CDU in Lower Saxony has dared to call for his resignation yet.
Sending in the public prosecutor's office would be a much more elegant approach.
REPORTED BY MICHAEL FRÖHLINGSDORF, HUBERT GUDE, MARTIN U. MÜLLER AND ALFRED WEINZIERL
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan