The scandal has festered for years. But this week the so-called Flick Affair—West Germany’s everwidening political bribery uproar—was expected to move from government corridors, newspaper columns and parliamentary inquiry into the sedate but potentially punishing arena of a Bonn courtroom. At issue is the way in which big business finances politics in the Federal Republic —and what business seeks in return.
At stake is the honor of two former economics ministers indicted in the bribery case: Otto Lambsdorff, who resigned from Chancellor Helmut Kohl’s coalition cabinet last June, and Hans Friderichs, now chairman of the Dresdner Bank. Also involved is senior industrialist Eberhard von Brauchitsch, who is accused of passing vast sums to the former ministers. As well, the case threatens to damage further the already sullied reputations of West Germany’s major political parties. Referring to the Flick Affair last month, Walther Kiep, former treasurer of the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU), remarked, “We have had a substantial loss of integrity of economic and political leadership in this country.”
Flick, the name in the forefront of a federal inquiry into political funding for more than three years, is a Diisseldorf-based industrial group with annual sales of $5.3 billion from the manufacture of goods ranging from military tanks to household bathtubs. Flick is no stranger to heavy going or hot water. Prior to the bribery indictments, government agents discovered that Flick had contributed a total of more than $13 million to every German political party except one. The exception: the recently formed Green movement, which has added ethics in government to its popular disarmament and environmental protection platform and has enjoyed a measure of electoral success.
Flick’s political contributions—and those of other major German companies—are also under the scrutiny of an all-party committee of the Bundestag,
West Germany’s legislature. Meeting in Room 1903 of the parliamentary building in Bonn, the panel has already held more than 50 sessions, including the questioning of Kohl and former Bundestag speaker Rainer Barzel, who resigned in October amid rumors that he accepted cash payoffs from Flick. Additional hearings, set for later this month, may lead to charges against other business and political leaders.
The Lambsdorff indictment charges that during the 1970s he accepted $238,000 on behalf of his Free Democratic Party (FDP) from von Brauchitsch, 58, a smooth, former senior officer for Flick. In exchange, the former minister is alleged to have used his influence to grant tax concessions worth more than $1 billion to the conglomerate. The taxes were waived on the grounds that Flick’s investments were in West Germany’s national interest. For his part, Lambsdorff, 58, the son of German nobility, strenuously denies the charges, and Friderichs also refutes allegations in the indictment that he accepted company funds on behalf of the Free 1 Democratic Party. There z is no suggestion that S either politician kept Flick’s donations for themselves.
The trial is expected to be a long one and it may even continue through the federal election, scheduled for this spring. The Flick Affair—which German headline writers have nicknamed “Wassergate” —has severely embarrassed Kohl’s government. But the Social Democratic Party (SPD), which forms the official opposition to Kohl’s Christian Democrat-Free Democrat government, has been unable to take full advantage of the scandal. Indeed, the Social Democrats have been tainted too. It was while the SPD held power that Lambsdorff and Friderichs were alleged to have accepted bribes. As a result, according to West German political observers, the nascent Green party may yet become the principal, if unintended, beneficiary of Flick’s largess.
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