The Chats That Launched a Thousand Questions

It all started with chat messages. Concretely, those from the cell phone of Thomas Schmid, former secretary-general at the Ministry of Finance and ex-ÖBAG boss, which led Vienna’s Public Prosecutor’s for Corruption and Financial Affairs (WKStA) to investigate Chancellor Sebastian Kurz (ÖVP) and a number of people in his closest circle.

On Wednesday, October 6, raids on the chancellery and ÖVP offices were conducted, backed up by a search warrant that runs to 104 pages and lists criminal offenses such as bribery and embezzlement in which the chancellor and nine associates were allegedly involved in.

Since Thursday, October 7, when Green Vice-Chancellor Werner Kogler openly questioned Kurz’s “ability to act” as chancellor, the ÖVP-Green coalition government has been hanging by a thread.

A special session of Parliament next Tuesday, October 12, will bring more clarity on that matter.

But what was written in these dubious chats that everyone is now talking about?

An “Accidental Find”

In fact, it was an “accidental find” of the WKSta on Schmid’s cell phone (which had been impounded since the ÖBAG affair) which launched the new round of investigation. The WKSta now proceeds on the assumption that a team around Kurz had partially manipulated surveys and polls, prepared with the knowledge and on behalf of Kurz, and published them together with reporting as advised in the daily newspaper Österreich.

In return, millions of euros in advertisements are said to have been paid out. The public prosecutor’s office lists a total of ten people, from Kurz himself to Österreich editor Wolfgang Fellner, as defendants. The presumption of innocence applies to all of them.

Detailed Analysis by the Public Prosecutor

Even before the current investigations became known, the ÖVP repeatedly fired against the WKStA; it also spoke of planned house searches without giving any details. When the raids were then actually carried out at the chancellor’s office and party headquarters on Wednesday, October 6, the party stuck to its line: The accusations were “false and contrived,” it said.

The tone changed somewhat on Friday, October 8, when the WKStA released the several hundred-page investigation report for inspection by the defendants and their lawyers. The document also quickly found its way to the media – and with it the chat histories used by the public prosecutor’s office to support its suspicions.

The report bears witness to how meticulously the investigating authority worked on compiling the case. However, this also means that the chat logs in the investigation report cover more than just those messages that directly involve alleged criminal acts.

By analyzing the chats, the WKStA also aimed to show how closely Kurz and Schmid had worked together and that the acts committed by Schmid and others had not happened without Kurz’s knowledge but were enacted on his behalf.

Politics & Morality

At a press conference called at short notice on Friday evening, Kurz spoke of messages “that I partly formulated in the emotion and the heat of the moment in a way that I would not formulate today.” According to the chancellor, however, they have nothing to do with the criminal charges. The WKStA, however, considers them essential because they show the relationship between Kurz and Schmid.

Moreover, the chats contain a politically explosive content. They paint a moral picture of a kind of political dealings that at the very least raises questions. When Kurz’s predecessor as ÖVP leader, Reinhold Mitterlehner, published his book Haltung (Attitude) in 2019, Schmid and Kurz exchanged views on it*:

  • “These old fools are so unbearable! No one ever had to face a federal election and explain the bullshit of the predecessors! You did it all successfully and we were allowed to cooperate Mitterlehner is a leftist dilettante and a giant oasch [asshole]!!! I hate him Bussi Thomas,” wrote Schmid to Kurz.
  • Kurz, at that time chancellor of the turquoise-blue government, replied: “Thank you Thomas [.] It’s super that Spindi has said something today. That surely disturbs the ass the most…”

*translations & squared brackets by Metropole

“Please, can I incite a federal state?”

From the time when Mitterlehner was still vice-chancellor, the chats paint a picture of a Foreign Minister Kurz who deliberately acted against his party leader.

In June 2016, Kurz wrote to Schmid in connection with Mitterlehner’s negotiations with then-Chancellor Christian Kern (SPÖ) around a solution for banks and 1.2 billion euros for after-school care for children, “Not good at all. How can you stop this?” Immediately afterwards, Kurz sent a message to Schmid saying: “Please, can I incite a federal state [against this proposal]?”

When then-Finance Minister Hans Jörg Schelling had wanted to compromise with the SPÖ on an important tax issue, Schmid wrote to staff in the Finance Ministry about the then-Finance Minister: “Talked to Kurz. Kurz was quite clear. Kurz said he doesn’t want a compromise or a solution. If he [Schelling] goes for it, he’s out.”

A “Special Relationship of Trust”

The WKStA does not claim that it can be concluded from these chats that Kurz instigated Schmid and others to commit criminally relevant acts. However, it does see them as evidence of how closely Schmid had worked with Kurz.

The WKStA argues that the “special relationship of trust” between Kurz and Schmid was the basis for the cooperation around the positive press coverage allegedly paid for with tax payer money.

In it is in this light that the WKStA considers messages that Schmid wrote to Kurz at various times.

  • In 2016, Schmid informed the then foreign minister Kruz that “all political research in Austria will now go to Beinschab” and followed up with: “This means we have polls and co discussed as agreed.” According to the WKStA, Sabine Beinschab and her opinion research institute Research Affairs were at the center of the affair.
  • A year later, Schmid wrote to Kurz: “Call me Mr. Survey :-)).”

The fact that Schmid and Kurz talked – this time again in 2016 – about persuading the opinion researcher and then ÖVP Family Minister Sophie Karmasin “to be on the poll front” is also seen by the investigators as an indication of Kurz’s complicity.

Whether all this will suffice for charges or even a conviction of Kurz, or what further results the raids brought, is still open.