Global Policy Forum

Suicide of a Party Official


By Roger Cohen

New York Times
January 21, 2000

Hamburg, Germany - A leading finance official of Germany's embattled Christian Democratic party committed suicide today after leaving a note indicating he had become aware of acts of embezzlement, the police said.

Wolfgang Hüllen, the head of the Christian Democratic Union parliamentary delegation's finance and budget department over the last 18 years, hanged himself in his Berlin apartment as a parliamentary investigation was getting under way into a web of illicit payments to the party in the 1990's.

A Berlin prosecutor told the daily Bild that a criminal inquiry into embezzlement had been opened based on a passage in Mr. Hüllen's suicide note. The Friday issue of the Berliner Zeitung said Mr. Hüllen had said in the note that he was afraid of an audit of the party's finances and that he had transferred money from the parliamentary group's account. No further information on the nature of the embezzlement was immediately available.

The death of Mr. Hüllen, 49, the father of two children, is the latest development in a widening scandal that has prompted repeated comparisons to the web of corruption whose revelation brought down Italy's Christian Democrats after the end of the cold war.

In Italy, several prominent public figures, including the former head of the state-owned oil company, killed themselves. German Christian Democracy is not Italian Christian Democracy -- it is better organized, it has not held a monopoly on postwar power, and it represents a respectable German right in a way that may be irreplaceable. Still, the headlines of "Deutschland alla Romana" have resonated, not least for the sheer operatic intensity of the drama.

Joachim Hí¶rster, a chief whip of the Christian Democrats in Parliament, announced the suicide to the lower house of Parliament and said first indications were that it was "of a personal nature." Parliamentary proceedings were briefly suspended. He declined to elaborate on the term "personal nature," and police accounts of the suicide note later suggested strongly that the background to Mr. Hüllen's death was in fact political. For several weeks, pressure has been mounting on the Christian Democrats to explain several million dollars in undeclared, and so illegal, payments to the party.

The search for answers centered today on the Reichstag building, focus of many German troubles over the last century and now home to the Parliament. The committee investigating illegal payments under former Chancellor Helmut Kohl began its proceedings by hearing his successor as party leader, Wolfgang Schäuble, apologize for his acts. Mr. Schäuble, who last week admitted taking 100,000 marks ($52,000) in cash from an arms dealer named Karlheinz Schreiber, said: "A few weeks ago in this chamber I didn't react as I should have to calls made from the coalition benches. I regret that and I apologize for that."

In effect, although he did not say it clearly, Mr. Schäuble was apologizing for having lied. On Dec. 2, 1999, under questioning about Mr. Schreiber from Hans-Christian Strí¶bele, a Green member of Parliament, the Christian Democratic leader said he "may have run into Mr. Schreiber on one occasion." "With or without a suitcase?" Mr. Strí¶bele shot back. "Without a suitcase," Mr. Schäuble replied. "That means I may have had a briefcase with me. I don't know for sure."

In fact, as he has now conceded, Mr. Schäuble met Mr. Schreiber not once but twice and, on the second occasion, accepted a bag containing a pile of cash that he says he passed on to the party treasurer. It is this sort of behavior that has led many people to conclude that Mr. Schäuble cannot now restore his party's shattered credibility. The parliamentary committee, headed by a Social Democratic politician, Volker Neumann, has summoned 26 people to testify, including Mr. Kohl and several of his former ministers. One central figure who will have to testify is Horst Weyrauch, who was long in charge of party finances under Mr. Kohl.

Mr. Neumann, who has said that during Mr. Kohl's 16-year term as chancellor "the government was for sale," has indicated the inquiry could go on for as long as two years. It seems evident that the Social Democratic party of Chancellor Gerhard Schrí¶der is eager to draw out the positive impact of the scandal on its own fortunes. But it is true that there is much to investigate, including payments to the party by Mr. Schreiber totaling over $550,000, the source of more than $1 million that Mr. Kohl says he took between 1993 and 1998, and how millions of dollars from the party branch in Hesse reached bank accounts in Switzerland and Liechtenstein.

The committee will also examine the suspicious sale of the former East German refinery Leuna to Elf Aquitaine of France in 1992. Mr. Kohl was highly enthusiastic about this transaction, a demonstration, he said, of renewed French-German friendship after France's long hesitation over German unification. But tens of millions of dollars from the sale have not been properly accounted for, prompting investigations by prosecutors in Switzerland and France into possible payments of bribes. Documents relating to the sale disappeared mysteriously from Mr. Kohl's Chancellery.

Mr. Kohl has admitted taking more than $1 million in secret payments, but insisted that none were bribes. He has said his "honor" prevents him from identifying the donors because he gave his word he would not. "Is the truth so terrible that Helmut Kohl places his word of honor above the German Constitution?" asked Gabi Bauer, the anchorwoman on Germany's main television program. The question clearly echoed the thoughts of millions of people in a country where the law says any contribution over $10,500 must be declared.

In the face of Mr. Kohl's defiance, and in the absence of any "donors" coming forward to identify themselves, suspicions have been growing that some or all of the money that the former chancellor says he received may in fact have come from overseas bank accounts maintained to manage illegal payments and kickbacks to the party. For unless the source of the money was illegal, it is increasingly hard for many Germans to understand how Mr. Kohl can continue to place his "honor" above the oath of office he took and above the well-being of his party.

"Honor" is a resonant word in the history of German political scandals. It was repeatedly used by Uwe Bar schel, the former Christian Democratic premier of Schleswig-Holstein, who gave his "word of honor" that he had not used dirty tactics against his Social Democratic challenger in an election in 1987. But soon after the election he was forced from office when his denials were disproved. A month later Mr. Barschel was found dead in a Geneva hotel, in what was first ruled a suicide and later investigated as murder.


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