Germany – Ex-president Wulff goes on trial

This post first appeared on on 18 November 2013

On 17 February 2012, Christian Wulff announced his resignation as Germany’s 10th federal president. This unusual step had been preceded not only by a request of the prosecution of Hannover to lift Wulff’s immunity to be able to launch an investigation into the claims of corruption. It also followed almost two months of public discussion about the president’s private finances, the nature of his private gains in various political deals while being minister-president of Lower Saxony, and his attitude towards the press. This article offers a brief overview of the events leading to and following Wulff’s resignation and explains the subject and potential outcomes of the trial as well as its significance.

From private loan to state affair
Following revelations in 2009 that Christian Wulff (then still minister-president of Lower Saxony) and his wife had received free upgrades on flights to visit their friends Egon and Edith Geerkens in Florida (public officials must not accept gifts above the value of €10), the opposition asked Wulff whether he maintained business relations with Mr Geerkens. While Wulff denied the existence of such relations, the German tabloid BILD revealed in December 2011 (Wulff had then already been president for 18 months) that Wulff and his second wife had received a private loan of €500,000 from Geerkens to buy a house. His lawyers first argued that Wulff had not lied to the state parliament as the loan had come from Egon Geerken’s wife Edith. However, as soon emerged Edith Geerkens did not dispose of sufficient financial resources and had agreed on a separation of property within the marriage, so that the loan had actually been granted by her husband. Only a few days after facing questioning in parliament, Wulff furthermore arranged a new loan with a private bank seen by many observers as evidence that Wulff wanted to safeguard himself against further allegations.

In early January 2012 newspapers then revealed that president Wulff left an agitated message on the voicemail of the editor-in-chief of BILD before the scandal broke and threatened with consequences. Not having issued a public statement on the affair yet, Wulff appeared on public television and promised to provide answers to any open questions. Nevertheless, in the following weeks newspapers continued to uncover several additional cases in which Wulff allegedly received benefits in exchange for political favours, with the majority dating back to Wulff’s time as minister-president of Lower Saxony. A major part in this were holidays Wulff and his family had spent on invitation of and financed by influential German businessmen (incidentally, Wulff’s spokesperson was dismissed for accepting holidays during the course of the affair). At the same time, a number of public prosecutors in German federal states started tentative investigations yet most were dropped after a few weeks. Eventually, the prosecution of Hannover (the state capital of Lower Saxony) sent a request to the speaker of the German Bundestag to lift the president’s immunity – the basis being that film financier David Groenewold paid for Wulff’s holiday on several occasions.

Charges, trial, and potential outcomes
The prosecution continued to focus mainly on Wulff’s holidays yet also investigated other allegations. In early 2013, the prosecution then charged his former spokesperson Olaf Glaeseker with corruption and began to prepare similar charges against the former president and Groenewold. Nevertheless, already in March 2013 the prosecution offered Wullf to cease the investigation in exchange for paying a €20,000 fine (a relatively common procedure if the sum in dispute is below a certain threshold). Wulff rejected the offer and the prosecution applied for opening a trial on charges of corruption against Wulff and Groenewold in April 2013. While the court agreed to open the trial, it only did so under charges of ‘unlawful acceptance of benefits’ and not the more serious charges of corruption. A verdict can be expected for April 2014.

The concrete cases for which Wulff and Groenewold are tried might appear trivial and even far-fetched to outside observers – Wulff is accused of accepting €510 for a night at a hotel (including costs for childcare during his stay), €209 for a dinner, and €3,209 for a trip to the Oktoberfest in Munich (including costs for 4-5 people travelling with Wulff and his wife) from Groenewold. In exchange, Wulff is thought to have asked others to help with the promotion of one of Groenewold’s films and appears to have been instrumental in securing state funding for a production of Groenewolds company a few years earlier. All this happened before Wulff became president. Nevertheless, the trial has great significance for several reasons. First, close personal relationships between politicians and businesspeople (including holidays spent together) are far from unusual. The trial will thus help to shed light on such networks and help to define which behaviour is still considered legal and which is not. Second, the trial has already raised questions about the tightening of anti-corruption legislation in Germany. Third, it is the first time in German history that a former or current head of state had to answer charges. Due to its ceremonial character, the German presidency depends on officeholders’ integrity and ability to act as a ‘moral authority’. Irrespective of its outcome, the trial will thus affect the selection of candidates for office in the future.

Should Wulff be found guilty, the sentence is likely entail at least a hefty fine, theoretically even a jail sentence of up to three years. However, due to the relatively small sum in question and because Wulff has no previous convictions the latter seems unlikely (although Wulff might be placed on probation for a limited amount of time). Due to the lack of precedents, it is not yet clear in how far the court will take Wulff’s high political position at the time into consideration. Nevertheless, as a former lawyer Wulff will be considered to possess an ‘increased sense of justice’ and might thus receive a higher sentence than Groenewold.

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