With a grim expression and a monotone to match, Chancellor Olaf Scholz told a parliamentary inquiry on Friday that he had no role in helping a Hamburg bank avoid a €47 million tax demand.
Mr Scholz has consistently denied any involvement in the affair from 2016, when he was governing mayor of Hamburg, and which has now followed him to the Berlin chancellery.
In the wood-panelled committee room of Hamburg city hall, sitting behind a sign reading “Olaf Scholz — Witness”, the politician said he had “no active memory” of key meetings related to the affair.
At least 20 times in 3.5 hours of testimony he said he “didn’t know any more” or had “no concrete memory” of three meetings in 2016 and 2017 with executives from Hamburg’s Warburg private bank.
On Friday he said he had “no influence on the Warburg tax procedures” and criticised “conjectures and insinuations” that are “wrong and are clearly not supported by anything or anyone”.
“Nowhere is there even the slightest indication,” he said.
In a diary seized by prosecutors, Warburg’s former supervisory board chairman Christian Olearius recorded details of three meetings with Mr Scholz in 2016 and 2017. They discussed demands from the Hamburg tax office for Warburg to pay €47 million over the so-called “cum-ex” system, share trades that allowed companies claim tax rebates to which they were not entitled.
Two bankers at Warburg are serving jail time and Mr Olearius is under criminal investigation for involvement in the so-called Cum-Ex affair.
After a meeting on October 26th, Mr Olearius wrote of Mr Scholz: “He asks, listens, does not express an opinion, does not give a glimpse of what he thinks and whether and how he intends to act. I understand that, I don’t want to push and compromise him in any way.”
During this meeting Mr Olearius presented a seven-page document presenting legal arguments against the tax demand.
Mr Scholz called the Warburg executive on November 9th, 2016 to suggest he forward the document to the city-state finance senator Peter Tschentscher.
Mr Scholz and Mr Tschentscher — now Hamburg mayor — had spoken by phone a day earlier. On Friday the chancellor said he had no memory of the contents of their phone conversation.
Afterwards, the finance senator passed the seven-page document on to the tax office, marked up with green ministerial ink.
Critics see this as a political signal for the responsible tax officer to change her mind on the tax demand.
On November 17th, six days after the Scholz phone call, the bank was informed the €47 million demand had been dropped, in a document that repeated many of Warburg’s arguments.
A month later, on December 22nd, Mr Olearius noted in his diary that he invited two SPD lobbyists, who helped set up the Scholz meetings, for lunch “in thanks for the assistance”. A month later Warburg contributed nearly €46,000 to the local SPD.
Another Scholz-Olearius meeting followed in November 2017, this time allegedly to discuss a second, €43 million tax demand.
The banker wrote in his diary: “I believe, one could interpret his reserved manner as meaning we have nothing to worry about.”
The funds were eventually collected, but only after intervention from then federal finance minister in Berlin, Wolfgang Schäuble.
Recent discoveries by investigators indicate frantic activity behind the scenes by Mr Scholz and his closest officials around the Warburg decision.
According to Der Spiegel magazine, a search of Hamburg government servers in June — comparing emails with calendar entries — revealed “a noticeable imbalance in the use of keywords Cum/EX or M.M.Warburg”.
While no emails could be found with those keywords, investigators noticed that many meetings were held on the issue in 2016-2020.
The lack of detailed emails on the matter, investigators concluded, “points to a targeted deletion of [material] on Cum/Ex and M.M. Warburg”.
Investigators have also found emails of Mr Scholz’s office manager, sent in advance of Mr Scholz’s first parliamentary inquiry appearance in Hamburg in April 2021, urging a senior Scholz aide to “sort out” how they characterise the Warburg meetings.
Friedrich Merz, head of the opposition Christian Democratic Union, insisted no politician would forget details of a conversation about a multimillion tax demands.
“I don’t believe a word the chancellor says,” he said, “it completely lacks credibility.”