Kohl investigation threatens to engulf CDU leadership


German prosecutors yesterday began a criminal investigation into the former chancellor, Dr Helmut Kohl, as the scandal surrounding secret donations to his Christian Democratic Union (CDU) threatened to engulf the party's present leadership.

Dr Kohl's successor as leader, Dr Wolfgang Schauble, is under growing pressure to explain why the CDU parliamentary group gave more than DM1 million (£400,000) in cash to the party's central organisation in 1997.

German law prohibits parliamentarians from funding political parties, but in a financial report published last Friday the CDU admitted that cash from the Bundestag deputies had been delivered to party headquarters in a suitcase.

"If you transport money like this, you have to use a suitcase. You can't put it in your pocket," explained Mr Andreas Schmidt, a CDU member of the parliamentary committee investigating Dr Kohl's network of secret accounts.

Dr Kohl has admitted accepting almost £1 million from anonymous donors between 1993 and 1998 and channelling the funds through secret accounts to local party organisations. Last week's report revealed that the sum of anonymous donations was great er than the former chancellor admitted and that he gave some of the money to his own local organisation.

German parties are partly funded by the state on the basis of the number of votes they receive in elections, but they are also allowed to accept donations from individuals and companies. The state pays matching funds worth 50 per cent of each donation but all contributions to party funds must be registered and the donors of sums greater than £8,000 must be identified.

Dr Kohl has consistently refused to name the secret donors, arguing that he cannot break the promise he gave to respect their anonymity. But he insists that the contributions had no influence on government decisions and stresses that he did not benefit personally from any donations.

Dr Schauble has attempted to persuade the former chancellor to break his silence, but critics believe that the new leader lacks the moral authority to stand up to his former boss. A former interior minister, who has used a wheelchair since he was paralysed in an assassination attempt in 1990, Dr Schauble is widely respected as a formidable political thinker. But he has not succeeded in escaping from Dr Kohl's shadow since he took over as party leader in 1998.

Although Dr Kohl is now a backbencher, he still attends leadership meetings and maintains an impressive network of loyalists throughout the party he led for a quarter of a century. His enduring influence became apparent soon after the funding scandal broke, when a senior party official sent a crucial document about the affair to Dr Kohl before Dr Schauble knew of its existence.

Social Democrats and Greens claim that, as leader of the CDU parliamentary party in 1997, Dr Schauble must have known about the massive cash transfer to party headquarters.

Mr Rezzo Schlauch, the Greens' parliamentary leader, dismissed as risible Dr Schauble's claim that it is too late to work out exactly where the money from.

"Nobody can tell me that, three years after the event, it is impossible to work out what the sources were. There must be bank statements, and those responsible ought to explain what happened," he said.

As the scandal dominates the news, Dr Schauble has been struggling to rally his party to stem the rising popularity of the Chancellor, Mr Gerhard Schroder, in advance of two important state elections in the coming months.

"Schroder's lack of substance has not disappeared overnight. Just because we are in great internal difficulties at the moment, we will not give up the right to engage in political argument," he said.