German political scandals begin to stain top officials

April 04, 1993|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,Berlin Bureau

BERLIN -- Petty chiseling and embarrassing scandals, whic have long soured German politics, are now not so cheap and seem to be rising toward the top like curdled cream.

German corruption is nowhere as pervasive as the stuff bringing down the Italian government these days, but it has begun to tarnish high officials.

The latest impropriety threatens one of Chancellor Helmut Kohl's most valued Cabinet members, Guenther Krause, the traffic minister. His troubles started with what has been called, with splendid German derision, the Putzfrau Affaere -- the Cleaning Woman Affair.

Mr. Krause's wife, Heidrun, allegedly pressured the government employment service to pay for most of their cleaning woman's wages.

That's 70 percent of 858 marks ($533) a month, with an option to renew until the year 2000. The woman had been jobless, and the payment is a kind of incentive for hiring the unemployed. The Krauses reportedly have a monthly income of about 30,000 marks ($18,500).

Aside from the Putzfrau Affair, the electorate has recently had to face the Kiel Desk Drawer Affair, the Swine Affair and the Amigo Affair.

The raffish boulevard press -- sensational streetwise papers -- took the Putzfrau story and ran with it breathlessly. Mr. Krause was already unloved by Germans because he wants them to pay fees to use their beloved autobahns.

But more and more of Mr. Krause's peccadilloes became unwrapped. He is supposed to have manipulated the award of autobahn rest-stop franchises. He took a Luftwaffe plane to a railroad convention in Jacksonville, Fla., at twice the cost of a commercial flight, then flew his son back to school in San Francisco at government expense.

More and more "respectable" papers ask how he survives. The magazine Der Spiegel answered the question: "The man remains under the protection of Helmut Kohl."

It's not because Mr. Krause is a great traffic minister that Mr. Kohl treasures and protects him. It's because he is the most prominent east German in the government.

Mr. Krause is the spokesman for east Germans among Mr. Kohl's Christian Democrats. He helped negotiate the unification treaty between former East and West Germany. He has the immunity of a token minority member in the Cabinet.

"I must have been stupid," Juergen Moellemann, a former economic minister, quipped last week. "I resigned."

Mr. Moellemann's contretemps was dubbed the Cousin's Affair because he used Economics Ministry stationary to tout products that his wife's cousin sold to supermarkets. He quit under pressure in January.

Many Herr Doktors of Economics also questioned the competence of Mr. Moellemann to run the economic affairs of Germany. He is a high school teacher by profession.

Political observers suggest that politicians and bureaucrats justify themselves by pointing to their relatively low pay compared with that of executives in business or industry. Some suggest that government has attracted only the second-rate.

The sober Wickert Polling Institute has found that only 37 percent of Germans think their politicians are basically honest; 62 percent find them frequently "venal."

The Kiel Desk Drawer Affair endangers Bjorn Engholm, the leader of the opposition Social Democrats. He wants to become chancellor in Mr. Kohl's place after the parliamentary election next year.

Mr. Engholm, who is minister-president of Schleswig-Holstein, is caught in a when-did-he-know-what? question in his home state.

He is seen as indecisive and wishy-washy in dealing with the affair, a complicated case that has to do with a sensational political payoff.

It got its name because somebody shoved 40,000 marks ($25,000) into a desk drawer.

The case has been revived because of a recent "gift" to one of the participants by one of Mr. Engholm's best friends in the party. Mr. Engholm was slow, uncertain and unconvincing in reacting.

Finance Minister Theodore Waigel has been tainted by the Swine Affair. But he seems to have weathered accusations that he squashed the indictment of a Bavarian who was accused of illegally acquiring permits to export 300 million marks' worth of meat.

And, neither last nor least, the Bavarian minister-president, Max Streibl, happily ignores allegations in the Amigo Affair that he took free flights, free car rentals and free vacations in Brazil from an airplane manufacturer and contributor to his campaign. The case is being investigated by a legislative committee.

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