The Governing ÖVP Further Rocked by ÖBAG Scandal

As part of a long-standing investigation, the WKStA (Public Prosecutor for Financial Crime) recovered old chat messages between top ÖVP officials and ÖBAG director Thomas Schmid from the latter’s phone. Summarized in an 187-page document, the exchange gives an insight into inter-party collusion, which could have serious consequences for those involved. 

Protagonist Thomas Schmid

The Tyrolean belongs to Kurz’s inner circle. The former spokesman of ex-finance minister Karl-Heinz Grasser, he has worked in the ministry since 2013, serving first as cabinet chief and then general secretary. When Kurz took the lead of the new ÖVP in 2017, he gave Schmid a plum assignment: converting the ÖBIB from a Limited Liability Company (LLC) to an AG, called Österreischische Beteiligungs AG (Austria Holding PLC or ÖBAG). 

The ÖBAG manages the state’s shares in 11 important companies, including the Bundesimmobiliengesellschaft (BIG), Casinos Austria, oil producer OMV, Telekom Austria, Österreichische Post, and Verbund, controlling some €26.6 billion in state assets, over €3,000 per inhabitant. 

While the ÖVP spearheaded the project, the FPÖ got involved during coalition talks in November 2017 reaching agreement on October 15, 2018, allocating the ÖBAG’s directorship to ÖVP and two supervisory board seats to the FPÖ. 

A “Self-Made Man”

Schmid set his cap for the job of CEO of ÖBAG, which carries a whopping €500,000 annual salary. But according to the chat protocols, Kurz originally opposed the appointment. “Sebastian won’t let me go,” Schmid wrote. However, the chancellor’s stance didn’t deter Schmid and his assistant, L., who requested air conditioning in the ÖBAG office and launched the design of a new website. Still, Schmid wanted to keep his career move a secret. Messages record him directing his spokesperson that he didn’t want to see any mention of his name in connection with the ÖBAG. 

“All of that hurts me,” he wrote. By December, Blümel confirmed Schmid’s appointment to the position, writing, “Schmid AG done!” He added a biceps emoji in celebration.   

Next, Schmid needed a supervisory board that would appoint him to the position. Negotiations got off on a rocky start, as he and Kurz couldn’t agree on the names. Kurz wanted the former German Defense Minister Karl Theodor zu Guttenberg, but Schmid proposed KTM-Chef Stefan Pierer instead. In the end, Kurz prevailed, putting his close friend Gabriela (“Gabi”) Spiegelfeld to assemble the board.  A key fundraiser with a reputation of being a “good lobbyist,” she also co-founded a women’s network with former Greens’ spokeswoman Ewa Glawischnig. Kurz clearly hoped Spiegelfeld would bring women into the ÖBAG clan. Schmid was less keen, commenting, “The women are really annoying. Scheiss quota.” Ultimately, they found a candidate Schmid was happy with – finance expert Susanne Höllinger, whom he described as “compliant,” and “controllable.” 

Schmid also reworked the job description, excising the pre-requisite of “international leadership experience,” which he doesn’t have, helping shield him from competing applicants. 

Everything went according to the plan, and on March 27, 2019, Schmid was officially appointed CEO of ÖBAG, reassured that the chancellor would not to make him “a board member without mandates,” to which Kurz responded with three o-mouthed emojis: “You’ll get anything you want anyway.” Schmid replied with two smileys: “I’m so happy :-))) I love my Chancellor.”  

Employment Agent

Following his appointment, Schmid also functioned as the ÖVP’s appointments secretary. One of his clients was Gabriele Tamandl, a former member of the National Council (Nationalrat) and deputy of the ÖVP’s workers’ organization, ÖAAB, who lost her parliamentary seat in 2017. Then Finance Minister Jörg Schelling (ÖVP) turned to Schmid on her behalf. 

“We need a job for Gabi Tamandl. Any ideas?” Schelling wrote. Schmid tried unsuccessfully to place her at one of the companies with a significant government share position, or as a consultant in the Finance Ministry, an objective Schelling denies. 

Schmid helped others too, including family members and sometimes just friends of friends.  In one case, Schmid eased the way for former Vienna ÖVP chairman, Manfred Juraczka, whose number the got from Blümel: “Thank you! Please be kind to him.” Blümel replied. Juraczka ended up at Fontana Sportverwaltungs GmbH. 

House of Cards?

Blümel and Kurz denied involvement at the Ibiza U-Ausschuss last summer./(C) BKA/Andy Wenzel

Last summer, Blümel and Kurz denied involvement at the Ibiza U-Ausschuss hearings to investigate the background of the Ibiza scandal. “It wasn’t me,” Kurz said specifically, “but at some point he informed me that he was going to apply.”  

Blümel claimed a more severe memory lapse about ÖBAG, claiming also that he wasn’t responsible for the appointment of the board. This is formally correct, according to Die Presse but his denial of involvement in the decision-making process is clearly misleading.

SPÖ parliamentary leader for the Ibiza committee Jan Krainer believes the ÖVP officials lied. “The picture that Kurz drew that he was only briefly informed is not true,” Krainer said., calling for a review of the politicians’ statements. Lying before the “highest parliamentary control body” constitutes perjury and is punishable. NEOS parliamentary leader Steffi Krisper announced plans to report Kurz for giving false evidence. If convicted, he could face up to three years in prison. 

The Federal Council voted 31 to 27 to remove Schmid as ÖBAG CEO,  and on 20 March, the ÖBAG supervisory board announced that it would not renew Schmid’s contract, when it runs out at the end of this year. The holding has already started looking for a replacement. 

Despite mounting scandals and a slipping approval rating, the ÖVP ship is still sailing. However, Kurz’s government remains on thin ice.