Austrian minister’s home raided in casino corruption probe

The house of one of the ministers closest to Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz was searched Thursday as part of a probe into possible party financing offences, prosecutors said.

Austrian minister's home raided in casino corruption probe
Austrian Finance Minister Finance Minister Gernot Bluemel. Photo: VLADIMIR SIMICEK / AFP

Specialised anti-corruption prosecutors said in a statement that they were investigating Finance Minister Gernot Bluemel and two other suspects over possible corruption and bribery offences.

The probe relates to possible illicit payments from a gambling company to the centre-right People's Party (OeVP), to which Kurz and Bluemel both belong, in return for “help… with tax liability that the business was facing abroad”, according to the prosecutors.

Bluemel said the probe had to do with alleged donations from Austrian gambling giant Novomatic but denied that the OeVP had ever received any funds from the company.

Early in the evening, he said he would not resign as opposition parties have demanded. Prosecutors said searches had been carried out at “several private and business addresses”.

The Der Standard daily reported that at the time of the alleged discussion of a donation in 2017, Novomatic was facing the prospect of tens of millions of euros' worth of fines from authorities in Italy.

That was the same year Kurz took over the leadership of the OeVP while serving as foreign minister, before leading the party to victory in elections that autumn and becoming chancellor.

Bluemel held several senior positions in the Vienna section of the party at the time.

The finance minister confirmed in a statement sent to AFP that he had had “a good conversation at a pre-arranged appointment” at the prosecutors' headquarters.

“Of course at the house search which followed the interview I supplied all the requested documents and electronic devices,” he added.

Bluemel, who denies all wrongdoing, is seen as close to Kurz and recently made an unsuccessful bid for mayor of Vienna as the OeVP candidate.

All the main political opposition parties have demanded Bluemel's resignation but the OeVP's junior coalition partners the Greens have been more circumspect.

The Novomatic investigation is one of several that have grown out of the so-called “Ibizagate” scandal which brought down Kurz's first government, a coalition with the far-right Freedom Party (FPOe).

The scandal erupted in May 2019 when a video emerged showing the then leader of the FPOe and Vice Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache appearing to offer public contracts to a woman posing as a wealthy Russian in return for election campaign help.

During that conversation Strache was heard suggesting that Novomatic “pays everyone”. The company denies any impropriety and Strache withdrew the remarks.

The scandal lead to early elections in autumn 2019 in which the OeVP emerged strengthened, profiting from a collapse in the FPOe's vote share.

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Austrian officials fire back after Kurz criticism

Austrian prosecutors and judges hit back Wednesday at criticism of the justice system by Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, days after one of his ministers had his house searched as part of a corruption probe.

Austrian officials fire back after Kurz criticism
Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz. Photo: ALEX HALADA / AFP

On Monday, Kurz told a press conference that there were “many failings” in the way anti-corruption prosecutors had gone about investigating Finance Minister Gernot Bluemel and said there was “an urgent need for change” within the body.

Austrian minister's home raided in casino corruption probe 

Last week, Bluemel's house was searched as part of a probe into possible illegal financing of his and Kurz's centre-right People's Party (OeVP) by the gambling giant Novomatic.

Bluemel and the party vehemently deny any wrongdoing.

“These blanket allegations by the chancellor have caused indignation,” the president of the Austrian prosecutors' association, Cornelia Koller, told the Der Standard daily.

Sabine Matejka, the head of the judges' association, also told the paper that Kurz's “accusation of wrongdoing is totally inappropriate and is to be rejected”.

“That one branch of the state should smear another in this way is not something one would expect in a country like Austria,” she added.

Also on Wednesday, the OeVP's parliamentary group wrote to the justice ministry to demand explanations for the reason for the search of Bluemel's house.

Since Kurz entered into a coalition with the Green party in early 2020, the Greens have run the justice ministry. Prior to that, it had been led by OeVP politicians since 2008.

Matejka said that while anyone under investigation had the right to have prosecutors' actions scrutinised, “that is the job of independent courts, not politicians”.

The opposition Social Democrats (SPOe) said Kurz's “attacks on the justice system were dangerous for democracy” and that the actions of OeVP politicians revealed “attitudes towards the rule of law and the separation of powers that should set alarm bells ringing among all democrats”.