Austrian finance minister rejects cronyism and corruption claims

Gernot Blümel accused of donations-for-favours scandal and securing job for friend

Gernot Blumel: Minister has criticised how text messages between him and his friend, recovered by prosecutors, had been leaked to the media. Photograph: Thierry Monasse/Getty

Gernot Blumel: Minister has criticised how text messages between him and his friend, recovered by prosecutors, had been leaked to the media. Photograph: Thierry Monasse/Getty

 

Austria’s finance minister Gernot Blümel has denied he breached political guidelines and pushed a close friend’s appointment to a lucrative state position.

In February, Mr Blümel’s home and offices were raided as part of a wider corruption and bribery investigation; subsequently a tranche of related text messages, including from him, were leaked to the media.

The 39-year-old finance minister has dismissed as “false and easy to disprove” prosecutor claims that he was part of a donations-for-favours scandal involving his party, its former coalition partner and a casino company in which the Austrian state holds a stake.

But his testimony before a parliamentary inquiry steps up political pressure on his close friend Sebastian Kurz, who took office as chancellor four years ago promising to break with the very style of politics of which is government now stands accused.

Casino operator

On Wednesday, MPs in the inquiry focused on Mr Blümel’s role in securing a friend the top job at ÖBAG, a holding company that manages state holdings in an oil company, a property portfolio, the post office and a casino operator.

Investigators allege that Mr Blümel lobbied for his friend Thomas Schmid – then secretary general of the finance ministry official and long-serving member of the ruling People’s Party (ÖVP) – to get the chief executive job at ÖBAG, even allowing him rewrite the job announcement to match his skills.

“You’re family,” wrote Mr Blümel to his friend after he was appointed to the company, which the minister jokingly renamed as “Schmid plc”.

On Wednesday, Mr Blümel criticised how text messages between him and his friend, recovered by prosecutors, had been leaked to the media.

“When individual messages are presented, ripped out of their context, this can appear irritating . . . which I can understand,” he said, adding that their “rakish” nature showed merely that the two knew each other well. “Everyone has written messages that, in hindsight, one would write differently.”

Work laptop

During a previous appearance before the parliamentary inquiry, opposition politicians reminded Mr Blümel how he couldn’t remember if he had a work laptop. A prosecutor report leaked subsequently outlined how, on the day of the raid, the minister’s wife left the house with a laptop.

On Wednesday, Mr Blümel told MPs he used his phone for work, had no official laptop, and that his wife was carrying her private laptop on the day of the raid. Opposition politicians suggested the minister was only able to remember “what has become public, and not one centimetre more”.

The testimony of Mr Blümel is one strand of a much wider investigation, the so-called “Ibiza Affair”, and allegations that toppled Mr Kurz’s first government with the far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ). Secret video recordings made in a holiday villa in Ibiza in 2017 appeared to show FPÖ leader Heinz-Christian Strache promising political favours to a would-be financial donor.

On Wednesday Mr Blümel said Novomatic, a slot-machine maker, approached him four years offering to make a political donation to the ÖVP, which he declined.