Austria’s Sebastian Kurz implicated by former ally in corruption scandal

The former Secretary General in the Austrian Ministry of Finance, Thomas Schmid, is trying to close a plea deal with prosecutors saying former Chancellor Sebastian Kurz knew about bribes and embezzlement.

Austria's Sebastian Kurz implicated by former ally in corruption scandal
Austria's former chancellor Sebastian Kurz implicated by ally in corruption scandal (Photo by Ludovic MARIN / AFP)

They were once close allies, but when the alleged corruption scandal claiming former chancellor Sebastian Kurz and his inner circle bribed Austrian media to publish polls favouring him came out, things went sour.

Thomas Schmid, the former Secretary General in the Ministry of Finance, wants to become a key witness and work on a plea deal with authorities, several Austrian media reported. He could implicate former chancellor Sebastian Kurz, who was a person of interest in corruption investigations in Austria.

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On Tuesday evening, the first details of Schmid’s 15-day conversations with prosecutors came out. The politician alleged that when the first information about the so-called “poll scandal”, the allegations that a group of ÖVP politicians inside the Ministry of Finance bribed newspaper Oe24 to publish manipulated polls benefiting Kurz, came out, the former chancellor asked him to take all the blame.

Schmid said that the former chancellor, who resigned after the scandal while still denying his involvement, knew and was a part of the scheme.

“A conversation with Kurz was the starting point for me. For me, it was an order from the next boss, and I was full of drive”, Schmid said on setting up the bribery scheme, according to excerpts of the minutes published by the public broadcaster ORF. Kurz’s lawyer Werner Suppan denied the statements.

The former Secretary General is also said to have spoken on several other corruption scandals that mainly affected the ÖVP (which is still the party in power with chancellor Karl Nehammer).

Statements are ‘no surprise’

On Facebook, Kurz said that Thomas Schmid’s states were “no surprise” for him. “He is attempting to gain witness status by filing charges against others, including me, so that he can walk free.”, the former chancellor said. Kurz denies the allegations.

“The accusation that I have committed a crime with an opinion researcher whom I have never met in my life and who has personally stated not knowing me is absurd for many reasons.”, he said.

Kurz also said that the accusations that he used the budget from the Ministry of Finance because he had no other financial means for an opinion poll made no sense. The former chancellor explained that he had access to millions of euros in funds from different sources, including the Foreign Ministry, where he was minister, the Political Academy, and even party funds.

“What sense would it make for me to embezzle a few thousand euros per year in the Ministry of Finance?” he said.

Kurz added: “I look forward to proving these allegations are false”.

What are the investigations?

Prosecutors are investigating accusations that Kurz’s inner circle used public money to pay for polls skewed to boost his image. They also suspect that in return for running the surveys, and other fawning coverage of Kurz, an influential tabloid, Oesterreich, received lucrative public adverts.

The offences were allegedly committed to helping Kurz, already a government minister at the beginning of the period in question, take over the leadership of the ÖVP.

At the time the accusations came out in 2021, Kurz initially insisted there was no reason for him to resign. However, he eventually said he would put the country before his own interests until finally leaving politics altogether.

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The former chancellor has continued to protest his innocence.

As investigations expanded with the apprehension of cellphones and findings of possibly incriminating text messages, the scope of the allegations and the number of suspects increased.

Schmid is said to have spoken with the authorities about a series of alleged corruption cases. In order to close a plea deal, he needs to present the prosecutors with facts and information they don’t already know.

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EU court rejects Austria case against Hungary nuclear plant

The EU's second highest court on Wednesday rejected a complaint by Austria against a European Commission decision to approve the expansion of a nuclear plant in neighbouring Hungary with Russian aid.

EU court rejects Austria case against Hungary nuclear plant

Staunchly anti-nuclear Austria lodged the legal complaint in 2018 after the European Union’s executive arm allowed the expansion of the Paks nuclear plant outside the Hungarian capital Budapest with a 10-billion-euro ($12.4 billion) Russian loan.

The plant is Hungary’s only nuclear facility and supplies around 40 percent of its electricity needs.

In its decision the commission judged that the project met EU rules on state aid, but Austria disputed this.

The General Court of the EU ruled Wednesday that “member states are free to determine the composition of their own energy mix and that the Commission cannot require that state financing be allocated to alternative energy sources.”

READ ALSO: Why is Austria so anti nuclear power? 

Hungary aims to have two new reactors enter service by 2030, more than doubling the plant’s current capacity with the 12.5-billion-euro construction. The Paks plant was built with Soviet-era technology in the 1980s during Hungary’s communist period. 

The construction of two new reactors is part of a 2014 deal struck between Hungary’s right-wing Prime Minister Victor Orban and Russian President Vladimir Putin. The work is carried out by Moscow’s state-owned nuclear agency Rosatom.

The details of the deal have been classified for 30 years for “national security reasons” with critics alleging this could conceal corruption.

READ ALSO: Reader question: What are the chances of blackouts in Austria this winter?

Since the late 1970s, Austria has been fiercely anti-nuclear, starting with an unprecedented vote by its population that prevented the country’s only plant from providing a watt of power.

Last month, the Alpine EU member filed a complaint with the European Court of Justice over the bloc’s decision to label nuclear power as green.

In 2020, the top EU court threw out an appeal by Austria to find British government subsidies for the nuclear power plant at Hinkley Point in breach of the bloc’s state aid rules.