German federal finance minister Olaf Scholz has denied he carries any personal responsibility for the collapse of Wirecard, despite being the ultimate head of Germany's financial regulator BaFin.
His testimony on Thursday marked a high point in a Bundestag inquiry into the Wirecard scandal, the largest corporate fraud in German post-war history.
Mr Scholz told the Bundestag inquiry into Wirecard that much of its fraudulent activity happened before he took office in 2018 and that BaFin had acted “within its legal possibilities”.
The Munich-based payments company filed for insolvency last June after admitting that €1.9 billion, allegedly held in trust accounts, didn't exist. Chief executive Markus Braun remains in custody, while chief operating officer Jan Marsalek is on the run. Amid a series of resignations, investigations and arrests, Wirecard's investors are in line to lose most of their investment in the company.
“The government does not bear responsibility for this large-scale fraud,” said Mr Scholz in an opening statement, accusing Wirecard’s auditor EY for negligence.
In hindsight he acknowledged that Germany’s financial regulatory system was “not adequately equipped” for the scale of the Wirecard fraud.
As a result of the debacle, BaFin’s chief executive and his deputy, responsible for a controversial short-selling ban on the company, have departed. New legislation and the appointment of a new regulator, Mr Scholz, was indicative of his will for BaFin to “play globally in the premier league”.
"The most important task is to restore confidence in Germany as a financial centre," he added.
Media leaks during the inquiry suggested high-level intervention by finance ministry officials to protect the company when it ran into difficulties. This was “an absurd fairy tale”, he added.
September’s federal election loomed large over Thursday’s session of the Wirecard inquiry, given Mr Scholz is the lead candidate for the centre-left Social Democratic Party (SPD).
He came in for particularly scathing criticism from MPs for the ruling Christian Democratic Union (CDU), senior partner in the Berlin grand coalition and lead rival in the autumn poll.
Chief among their complaints was that he had communicated with his officials on Wirecard using a private email account, and had since deleted the messages.
"The finance minister carries main political responsibility for this scandal," said Mr Matthias Hauer, a CDU MP. Green MP Danyal Bayaz joked that Mr Scholz "never got to turn off the tap, so often did he wash his hands of the matter".
Mr Scholz agreed with MPs quizzing him that it was “not right” that, instead of investigating Wirecard, a criminal investigation was launched into Dan McCrum, the Financial Times journalist whose reporting exposed the fraud.
Asked if he had apologised, Mr Scholz said he had “expressed to [McCrum] that it was wrong”.
As the inquiry reaches its conclusion, chancellor Angela Merkel is scheduled to appear on Friday.
With Wirecard viewed in political Berlin as the poster child of Germany's financial technology sector, Dr Merkel lobbied on behalf of the company during a trip to China in 2019.