With the investigation of the Austrian Chancellor for corruption now confirmed, supporters and critics alike see the likely end of the political life of Federal Chancellor Sebastian Kurz (ÖVP) – with potentially career-ending consequences for many in his inner circle, some of whom may face prison time.
On Wednesday, October 6, under a court order, Vienna’s Public Prosecutor’s for Corruption and Financial Affairs (WKStA) confirmed it’s search the party offices of the ÖVP, the Finance Ministry, the Chancellery and several private apartments in Vienna in the latest “ÖVP scandal” in search of evidence documenting of the use of public money to purchase positive press coverage and manipulate survey results during the 2016 and 2017 parliamentary elections.
Cash for Positive Polls
Reported in detail in the Austrian news weekly Falter and in Profil, a web of corruption involving disguised invoices and sweetheart advertising deals set up to ensure positive coverage of Sebastian Kurz in the mass market tabloid Österreich – evidence that was the apparent reason for this morning’s raids.
Documents show that the state prosecutor is investigating allegations that Kurz committed “the crimes of embezzlement and bribery,” serious charges that can led to indictment.
Austrian political scientist Thomas Hofer commented the events thus to Bloomberg: “Message control is one thing. But if those allegations are true, this was not only manipulating the media, but also misleading the public.”
Chancellor Kurz himself was interviewed on live TV about the allegations in the evening of October 6, in the ZiB 2 news show of the ORF.
The “ÖVP scandal” – this is how it worked:
Kurz intimates allegedly developed a corrupt mechanism a few years ago when the now-chancellor was fighting to take over leadership of the Conservative Party (ÖVP): they called it the “Beinschab-ÖSTERREICH-Tool”
The alleged triangle of corruption reportedly worked like this:
- The ÖVP-led Finance Ministry funneled money to the tabloid Österreich via publicly funded ads. These deals were allegedly fostered through a Sophie Karmasin, who helped arrange meetings between the ministry’s then-General Secretary Thomas Schmid and the Fellners, who own and run Österreich.
- In exchange, the tabloid gave Kurz prominent and glowing coverage, particularly of political polls that purported to show Kurz’s meteoric rise in popularity – polls that had been fudged by pollster Sabine Beinschab, also in exchange for payments from the Finance Ministry.
- Beinschab billed the Finance Ministry for studies about “corruption prevention,” but included fees for the tweaked polling data.
Here is a translation of a crucial excerpt from the search warrant, which mentions Sebastian Kurz (see tweet below for original):
2./ Sebastian KURZ, by commissioning MMag. SCHMID to organize and negotiate both agreements described under A./II./1. as well as under B./, by obtaining reports on the status, by persuading MMag. Dr. Sophie KARMASIN to participate in the acts by means of a personal conversation, by subsequently commissioning surveys or individual questions and by working towards their controlled publication in order to use the survey results including their publication for exclusively party-political purposes;
This section alleges Kurz’s knowledge and active, direct involvement in the affair.
Current data show how ÖVP ministries have funneled large amounts of money to media outlets of the group Österreich, which is owned by Wolfgang Fellner, even this year (see tweet below).
What was in it for them?
Why would the ÖVP-led Finance Ministry support Kurz instead of Reinhold Mitterlehner, who was then vice chancellor and federal chair of his party? Because then-General Secretary Thomas Schmid – a familiar name from another recent round of muckraking – is and was a close friend and supporter of Sebastian Kurz, and was actively interested in promoting Kurz’s rise within the party and eventually, to the head of government.
Why would the tabloid Österreich, co-founded and closely managed by Wolfgang Fellner and his brother Helmuth Fellner (who also own Austrian magazine News and website and TV channel oe24), allegedly do such a thing? As Schmid reportedly texted, Fellner is “a capitalist.”
Ever more details are coming to light and have yet to be investigated and potentially prosecuted, but it appears that Kurz was both the key beneficiary of the alleged corrupt deals – and was also allegedly well-aware if not actively orchestrating them himself, reports say.
On the orders of the Prosecutor for Economic Affairs and Corruption (WKStA), multiple raids were carried out in the homes and offices of several Conservative Party (ÖVP) officials on Wednesday morning, multiple media reported. The finance ministry was also affected.
Opposition parties have already called for a special session of the National Council (Nationalrat), the lower house of Parliament, to discuss these new developments and allegations.
Will this scandal bring down the government? The jury is out – but the political opposition (and the press) seem increasingly sure.