Sick banker to file lawsuit against state

A banker found guilty of accounting fraud and embezzlement in a controversial trial plans to sue the state, it has emerged.

Jürgen Stephan Mertens, a lawyer representing Helmut Elsner, announced today (Thurs) his client planned to take the Republic of Austria to court over his bad health.

Elsner was released due to his fragile condition earlier this month. He spent four and a half years behind bars although the verdict from 2008 failed to become legally binding for around two years – partly due to the many appeals by his legal team.

The banker was found guilty of billions of Euros lost by Austrian bank BAWAG during his term as CEO. The near collapse of the financial institute also caused a public outcry as BAWAG bosses were caught having used the strike fund of Federal Trade Union Federation (ÖGB) as a guarantee and liability to cover up the immense losses.

Elsner claimed right from the start of the trial against him and eight other former decision-makers he was unfit to face justice. All suspects were found guilty in 2008. However, most of them got away with suspended prison terms and comparably short jail sentences while Elsner was ordered to spend nine and a half years behind bars. The sentence was increased by half a year in 2010.

Mertens claimed today “it’s not about the money” for Elsner. The businessman’s advocate added: “Elsner wants to have confirmed that his health was harmed due to the long imprisonment.”

The lawyer pointed out experts ruled already last year that Elsner was in too bad a condition to be kept behind bars. They called for an early release of the banker, Mertens added.

Elsner spent the final few weeks of his prison sentence in Vienna’s Wilhelminen Clinic to seek treatment. Judges eventually ruled the term should end early after a Viennese expert and a medic from Leoben, Styria, informed them that his state would certainly worsen if he were ordered to go back to jail after his stay in hospital. The doctors listed complications with the 76-year-old’s heart, lungs and kidneys.

The recent decision meant that two police officers placed outside his hospital room were withdrawn – only to reassign them to protect Elsner from paparazzi and obtrusive reporters.

Elsner’s wife Ruth said she was “of course” relieved to hear that her husband was granted an early release. However, she also said: “It seemed that my husband had to become fatally ill to get him out of jail. The imprisonment ruined him.”

Experts have pointed out that a court could call for a re-evaluation of Elsner’s condition in a few months’ time. The banker – who is expected to start rehab abroad – may be ordered to serve the remainder of his term if medical experts attest that his health has improved significantly.

Weekly magazine News reports today the ex-BAWAG chief and his wife moved into a 200-square-metre apartment in a building protected as a historic monument situated in the city centre of Austrian capital Vienna. Elsner and his lawyer did not comment on the claim.

Ruth Elsner moved out of a penthouse she and her husband resided in for years. The spacious apartment is owned by BAWAG. The bank’s new leadership engaged in a bitter legal feud with the woman over whether she had the right to stay living in the building situated in the heart of Vienna. She eventually decided to leave voluntarily in 2010.

Ruth and Helmut Elsner were spending a holiday in their villa in southern France when Viennese prosecutors wanted to question him in 2006. They decided to issue an arrest warrant when Elsner refused to return to his homeland. He was eventually arrested and extradited in 2007.

Austrian media and the public are engaged in a heated feud over Elsner’s allegedly posh lifestyle, the controversy about his health and how juridical officials have handled his case.