Creative Bookkeeping at the WKO

The Vienna Chamber of Commerce has been “hiding” payments to retirees as non-profit contributions, while the Chamber says the auditors knew about it all along.

Ever since Ibiza-gate revelations on Austria’s “swamp” of illegal campaign financing, the matter of dodgy bookkeeping has been on every tongue. Former Chancellor Sebastian Kurz’s conservative ÖVP has come under particular scrutiny, amid suspicions that corporate money is flowing through off-the-books channels into party coffers.

Evidence emerged last week when Florian Klenk, Editor in Chief of the Vienna weekly Falter, unearthed a concrete example of just how such transfers can work in practice. The case involves the Austrian Wirtschaftskammer (Chamber of Commerce) and the Austrian Senior Experts Pool (ASEP), a “moderately sponsored, non-profit club of experienced managers,” Klenk writes, “who provide their know-how to companies, advise apprentices and arrange panel discussions with top politicians.”

For this, the WKO gave ASEP €5000 per year. But three new co-presidents of ASEP last year discovered an additional €40,000 arriving on their accounts each month – and that a similar sum was then transferred to “a strange association named ‘Experten für die Wirtschaft’ (EFW, Experts for the Economy),” Klenk wrote.

Complicated transfers

A review of bank records showed an arrangement set to operate from 2010 to 2023 – thirteen years during which millions of euros, whose “exact origin is not known,” were to be transferred via the association. Noting that the funds were unrelated to the work of ASEP, the trio wrote to WKO vice president, Richard Schenz in June, 2018, and requested to end “this function of the association ASEP for the WKO”.  Gesagt, getan (so said, so done). The WKO ended the transfers.

It is now up to WKO Boss Harald Mahrer to explain himself, Falter wrote. “Are they perhaps covering uphidden party financing, as one WKO member speculated, or the remuneration associated with ÖVP politicians?”

Auditors in the know

Not at all, says the WKO. The set-up is “unusual, but totally clean.” The payments were part of a “social plan” for former WKO employees in early retirement, the Chamber told Falter, in exchange for their expertise. So why not pay them directly? Falter’s theory: “To prevent their payments from appearing as personnel costs, they were disguised as subsidies to associations and quietly distributed.”

In response to the article, he WKO issued a statement that the Court of Auditors had been fully informed. The plan was for employees who had been retired early in the 2002 budget cuts, and then hired back as independent “experts” by the EFW until their state pensions took effect. Not a case of illegal payments, then, but rather of creative accounting – just as Falter suspected.

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Naomi Hunt
Naomi Hunt is a managing editor at Metropole, with roots in the U.S. and Malaysia that have long been buried under Austrian soil. She previously served as a program manager at the International Dialogue Centre (KAICIID) and was a Senior Press Freedom Adviser at the International Press Institute (IPI).

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