‘Fatally ill’ banker released early

A banker found guilty of one of the biggest investment belly flops in the history of the country will walk free due to his fragile health, it has emerged.

Judges in Vienna announced yesterday afternoon (Thurs) that Helmut Elsner was too sick to serve the remainder of his 10-year term. The 76-year-old spent the past few months in the Wilhelminen Hospital in Vienna-Ottakring.

Now juridical decision-makers decided to officially end his term early after considering experts’ opinions given by a specialist from Leoben Styria and an institute in Vienna. The doctors attested that Elsner’s condition was certain to worsen if he were ordered back behind bars after his stay at the clinic. The medics listed issues with his heart, lungs and kidneys in their reports.

Yesterday’s decision – which is not expected to be appealed by state prosecutors – will mean that the two police officers currently lined up outside Elsner’s hospital room will be withdrawn.

His wife Ruth – who has written a book about her fight to get him out of detainment – said yesterday evening she was “relieved of course.” Ruth Elsner hit out at decision-makers once more, saying: “It seemed that my husband had to become fatally ill to get him out of jail.”

She claimed: “The imprisonment ruined him. He is unable to walk even as little as five metres.”

Elsner was sentenced to nine and a half years behind bars for losses BAWAG bank suffered during his term as executive board chief. The trial against Elsner – who was found guilty of accounting fraud and embezzlement – and eight other defendants lasted around one year. All nine suspects were found guilty in July 2008. However, most of them got away with suspended sentences and jail terms while Elsner was kept in preventive custody for more than a year as his lawyers appealed the verdict several times. Their actions kept the ruling from becoming legally binding.

Elsner’s legal team also applied for their client to be freed wearing an electronic ankle tag when such a measure was introduced in Austria to ease the pressures on prison wardens last year. These appeals were rejected by judges as well. A few months later, the Federal High Court (OGH) changed some of the verdicts handed down in 2008. The OGH also increased Elsner’s term by half a year to 10 years.

The near collapse of BAWAG also made headlines due to bankers’ decision to secretly use a so-called strike fund as a guarantee and liability to temporarily cover the losses the institute sustained in highly risky investment deals over the years. The fund featured money of the Austrian Trade Union Federation (ÖGB) which would have been used to continue paying members in the case of a long-lasting strike.

Elsner’s case caused a public dispute when he fled Austria to southern France and refused to return despite an arrest warrant in 2006. Elsner’s lawyers – who called his early release as “long overdue” today – started to raise health concerns soon after his extradition in 2007. While some Austrian media branded him as a greedy banker, others criticised decision-makers for being in charge of a fiasco due to their lack of pace in trying to finalise the verdict.

Another controversial aspect of the lengthy legal feuds was that presiding judge Claudia Bandion-Ortner went on to become federal justice minister in the cabinet of ministers of the People’s Party (ÖVP) in 2009. Many observers claimed at that time that Josef Pröll, the then vice chancellor and ÖVP chief, nominated Bandion-Ortner only because of the newly gained popularity during the court case against the nine ex-BAWAG bankers.

Bandion-Ortner had to leave the coalition of the Social Democrats (SPÖ) and the ÖVP last April when new ÖVP leader Michael Spindelegger carried out various changes in his team of ministers and state secretaries.

Political opponents and critics of Bandion-Ortner – who was replaced as justice minister by former ÖVP Science Minister Beatrix Karl – claim she made herself a laughing stock by suggesting that her chauffeur should be allowed to use special lanes restricted to public transport buses in Vienna only. She took back the appeal a few days later, claiming she had been misunderstood.