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Big business's role in politics is key issue in `Flick affair' trial

The ``Flick affair'' that went into the courts Thursday is less a trial than a parable, it seems. But the moral of the parable depends very much on the eye of the beholder.

For the left, the many recent revelations about laundered corporate donations to political parties demonstrate that a democracy must guard itself against being bought by big business.

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For the right, the singling out of Liberals as the only politicians to be indicted thus far -- and the leaking to the press of details of charges even before defendants had received their indictment -- warn that democracy must be wary of its critics.

For the defendents, the much more modest task of proving individual innocence is foremost.

So is fairness. The trial's opening session in a Bonn courtroom has now adjourned for a week in something of an anticlimax, as defense lawyers challenged the legal competence of the court and the impartiality of the jurors, given the exhaustive press coverage of the case in the two years before the trial ever began.

The mundane facts are these: Count Otto Lambsdorff, who is the intellectual leader of the Liberal Party's free enterprise-oriented right wing and who was economics minister in the present center-right government until his indictment a year and a half ago, is accused of aiding tax evasion and of accepting bribes of 135,000 marks ($45,000) from the giant Flick conglomerate in the 1970s. Count Lambsdorff was at the time treasurer of the Liberal Party in West Germany's most populous state of North Rhine-Wes tphalia.

Hans Friderichs, Lambsdorff's Liberal predecessor as economics minister -- and subsequent chairman of the Dresdner Bank until his indictment -- is charged with accepting bribes of 375,000 marks ($125,000) from Flick during his time as treasurer of the North Rhine-Westphalia Liberals. The contributions are described as having been routed through foreign countries and/or through nonprofit policy-research foundations in order to evade taxes.

There has been no suggestion that either man pocketed the money personally; the funds are said to have gone instead into the coffers of their beleaguered party, the smallest and poorest of the three veteran parties in the Bundestag.

The third defendant now on trial, Flick ex-manager Eberhard von Brauchitsch, is accused of passing these bribes and of evading taxes on 20 million marks passed to parties and private persons.

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The most spectacular taxes in question concern some 800 million marks, which should have been paid by Flick on 1.9 billion marks in profits that came from selling its 29 percent of Daimler-Benz shares 10 years ago. Tax payment was waived by the then center-left government (with approval by both Economics Minister Lambsdorff and Social Democratic Finance Minister Hans Matth"ofer), on the grounds that Flick's investment of these profits would stimulate the economy.

The prosecutors' initial investigation of Mr. Matth"ofer was not brought to an indictment; the much-criticized explanation for this deferential treatment of Lambsdorff and Matth"ofer was that any Flick money that went to Matth"ofer could not have been a bribe because this veteran of the trade-union movement never promoted industrial policy congenial to Flick, while Lambsdorff did. Lambsdorff's own interpretation of this distinction is that it reflected instead the political preferences of the Justice Mi nistry in a Social Democratic state.

Although this waiver was overruled after Der Spiegel magazine broke the story of the whole Flick scandal, Lambsdorff has continued to defend the original decision, saying that it was more important for this money to create jobs than to go into the public purse.

More generally, conservatives and Liberals have stoutly defended the widely-practiced funding by industry of the three main political parties. They say money needs to come from somewhere to enable parties to function in a democracy. They argue, further, that West German industrialists give them money without making specific policy demands.

Conservatives and Liberals also contend that Lambsdorff and Mr. Friderichs have been unfairly tried in the press because of all the publicity surrounding the Flick charges.

For the left, the lessons of the whole Flick affair are much more ominous. One full-page commentary by professor of political science Ulrich von Alemann carried by the Frankfurter Rundschau this week compared the present funding of parties by business to the whole collapse of the Weimar Republic's democracy.

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