German Politician Resigns in Scandal
A growing scandal over lobbyist payments to government officials ensnared one of Germany’s most popular and charismatic legislators Friday, adding to pressure for politicians to fully disclose their income and perks.
Cem Oezdemir, a naturalized German of Turkish descent who symbolized successful integration during his eight years as a lawmaker, is the latest politician tainted by association with influence peddlers.
Oezdemir, 36, resigned from his seat in the Bundestag, the lower house of Parliament, and put his already troubled Greens party on notice that he was withdrawing from his campaign for reelection.
His departure was spurred by the disclosures that he had used frequent-flier miles accumulated on state business for personal purposes and had accepted a low-interest loan from the same lobbyist whose lavish spending put more than $70,000 in the pocket of Rudolf Scharping, leading to his ouster as defense minister just a week ago.
The departures of Oezdemir and Scharping follow accusations in recent months that Social Democrats in North Rhine-Westphalia state had accepted illegal donations, as well as bribery allegations against conservative Christian Democrats, including former Chancellor Helmut Kohl.
As the campaign for Sept. 22 elections heats up, the governing coalition led by Social Democratic Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder is pushing for broad reform of Germany’s vague and limited financial disclosure guidelines. But the opposition, including Kohl’s party and the liberal Free Democrats, have objected to efforts to expose the “side income” of public servants as unnecessarily intrusive.
Bundestag President Wolfgang Thierse has thrown his authority behind the push for detailed disclosure, arguing that honest politicians have nothing to fear.
“There’s nothing fundamentally reprehensible about contact between politicians and lobbyists,” Thierse, who was a Social Democrat but now is in a nonpartisan role, told the Sueddeutsche Zeitung in an interview published Friday. “What is essential is that these relations are transparent and regulated.”
German law requires legislators to disclose payments for public appearances, speeches and promotional work only when they exceed $10,000. A clause in the parliamentary code of conduct says lawmakers should use frequent-flier miles accumulated on government business for other official trips, but airlines eager to please their official clientele can keep each customer’s records confidential, said Michael Kirnberger, vice president of a German travel management association.
It is also sometimes unclear what constitutes income that should be disclosed. Oezdemir ran into trouble for accepting a $40,000 loan from lobbyist Moritz Hunzinger at about half the interest rate a borrower would pay a bank. There is no law expressly prohibiting such an arrangement, but the saved interest is regarded by some as outside income that must be disclosed and assessed for taxes.
Government ministers are not allowed to accept any income aside from their annual salaries, which range from $165,000 a year to the chancellor’s $260,000. Bundestag members earn about $80,000 a year, plus an additional $40,000 for travel and expenses.
Despite the lack of clarity about what should be reported as income, the German public is becoming increasingly concerned about secret deals that could make politicians beholden to business interests or create the appearance of a conflict of interest.
In the wake of the Scharping scandal, media reports have linked politicians from all parties to lobbyists, suggesting such sweetheart deals are relatively common.
Another indication that such perks might be prevalent was the virtual silence that followed Oezdemir’s resignation, which would probably be exploited by political rivals in an election year unless they, too, felt vulnerable.
The only comments on his departure came from fellow members of the Greens party, which was already facing an uphill battle to gain seats in the next Parliament. Greens leader Kerstin Mueller called Oezdemir’s resignation “a loss for the whole Bundestag and especially for the Greens.”