Grasser rejects BUWOG corruption claims

Former Freedom Party (FPÖ) Finance Minister Karl-Heinz Grasser has denied any wrongdoing regarding the sale of real estate management company BUWOG.

The enterprise – which manages more than 60,000 apartments – was privatised in 2004 when Grasser headed the finance ministry. Ex-FPÖ General Secretary Walter Meischberger and marketing expert Peter Hochegger, who used to be close friends and business partners of Grasser, received a provision of nearly 10 million Euros for lobbying before the sale was sealed.

State prosecutors are currently trying to find out whether Grasser personally benefited from the sale of BUWOG to a consortium headed by real estate development firm Immofinanz. The ex-finance minister faces abuse of office investigations. He is also suspected of tax evasion.

Grasser was interviewed by the parliamentary anti-corruption committee yesterday (Tues). He told the parliament members (MPs) that the privatisation of BUWOG was a good deal for the country. Grasser held long monologues – but reacted unusually reluctant when it came to answer precise questions regarding the 961-million-Euro acquisition. “I am taking the full responsibility for the privatisation of BUWOG,” he said.

Prosecutors – who started examining the case long before the anti-corruption panel began to question former government members and businesspeople in January – are suspicious since the offer of Immofinanz was just one million Euros higher than the one of rival CA Immo which eventually lost out in the bidding procedure. Investigations are focused on whether Meischberger, Hochegger or some member of the council deciding over the deal informed Immofinanz about the amount of CA Immo’s secret offer.

Grasser is currently also engaged in a juridical conflict with his former office manager Michael Ramprecht. The ex-minister and Ramprecht accuse each other of defamation of character. Ramprecht controversially claimed in an interview with political magazine profil that the BUWOG privatisation was a “fixed” and a “put-up job”. Ramprecht claimed that he had been informed that Grasser wanted Lehman Brothers to organise the sale of BUWOG regardless of the opinion of other privatisation committee members. The US investment bank – which went bust in 2008 – was eventually asked to plan and monitor the sale.

Grasser was the first prominent witness of the anti-corruption commission since it started concentrating on the BUWOG sale controversy. The panel previously focused on checking whether it was true that ex-Telekom Austria (TA) bosses and lobbyists engaged in fraud and bribe in the past years. Especially the People’s Party (ÖVP) – which is part of the Austrian government since 1986 – benefited from financial support by TA via lobbying agencies and several former politicians’ public relation agencies.

ÖVP leaders and representatives of the Social Democrats (SPÖ) prevailed in the war of words with the opposition whether the anti-corruption committee should move on to examine the privatisation of BUWOG. The Greens, the FPÖ and the Alliance for the Future of Austria (BZÖ) wanted to continue investigating the various alleged cases of corruption carried out by former TA managers and ex-government members.

Barbara Prammer of the SPÖ, who heads the parliament, promised that the anti-corruption commission would be given all the time it needed to finish off its examinations. SPÖ MP Hannes Jarolim said December was a realistic date for handing in a final report. The party’s defence minister, Norbert Darabos, caused a stir last week by suggesting that the panel should try to end its activity before summer. Speaking to the Kurier, Darabos deplored that Austrians were apparently of the opinion that all politicians were corrupt or at least ready to engage in illegal actions.