The meeting of the finance committee on the Wirecard affair remained largely inconclusive: the secret services did not want to know anything and the federal government only represented economic interests. It is precisely this attitude that encourages the opposition to dig deeper.
The Federal Chancellery unintentionally pinned a fine award on the lapel of the “Handelsblatt”: According to this, the Wirtschaftsblatt is better informed than the German secret services in the scandal surrounding the fraud of the German financial services provider Wirecards, which has garnered billions of dollars. At least with regard to the whereabouts of the wanted Austrian ex-CFO Jan Marsalek. Minister of State Hendrik Hoppenstedt said in his appearance today in the Bundestag Finance Committee that neither the BND nor any other German intelligence service knew anything about Marsalek’s whereabouts. The “Handelsblatt”, on the other hand, had already reported the evening before, citing his acquaintance that Marsalek was near Moscow – under the protection of the Russian foreign secret service.
Wirecard is more than a scandal about economic fraud or an affair about a possible failure of German supervisory authorities. The figure Marsalek, who is obviously in contact with foreign secret services, the alleged blindness of the German security authorities to the dubious activities of Wirecard and Marsalek, the unclear relationship between the Federal Chancellery and Wirecard: all of this makes the billion-dollar fraud a political affair. A year before the federal election, the federal government is very inconvenient, which is why it is eagerly awaited whether the Greens, FDP and left will enforce a committee of inquiry. The FDP and the Left do not want to be dependent on the votes of the AfD to appoint a committee and hope for the approval of the still undecided Greens.
A busy retiree
A possible investigative committee would not only shed light on possible errors by the financial supervisory authority BaFin, which reports to the Federal Finance Minister and SPD candidate for Chancellor Olaf Scholz. The question will also be how conclusive the statements of the Federal Chancellery so far on the role of the secret services and on meetings with German lobbyists are. One person combines both aspects: the former secret service coordinator in the Chancellery Klaus-Dieter Fritsche.
In September 2019, Fritsche arranged a meeting with Wirecard representatives at Lars-Hendrik Röller, the economic advisor to Chancellor Angela Merkel. Since his retirement, which began in early 2018, Fritsche has not retired to old age. Rather, he hired himself as a consultant to the then Austrian Interior Minister Herbert Kickl. He was supposed to help the FPÖ politician reform the BVT secret service. After the government was overthrown over the Ibiza affair, Fritsche worked for Wirecard and arranged a meeting with Angela Merkel’s economic advisor, Lars-Hendrik Röller, in September 2019. In the meantime, Fritsche is again a consultant in Vienna, but now for an ÖVP-led Ministry of the Interior.
Austria again and again: The imprisoned Wirecard founder Markus Braun – also Austrian – was part of the advisory team of ÖVP Chancellor Sebastian Kurz. Marsalek, who was born in Vienna, was close to the FPÖ and the Russian ruling party. Marsalek should also have contacts to the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution and the Fight against Terrorism (BVT). Now he is supposed to be protected by the Russian foreign intelligence service.
BND doesn’t know anything
Whether this is actually the case is not certain, but many traces of Marsalek, who researched the “Financial Times”, the “Spiegel” and the research platforms Bellingcat, lead to Russia. Marsalek is said to have often boasted about his contacts with intelligence services. However, his conspiratorial lifestyle – dozens of short trips to Russia, alleged flying visits to Syria and Libya, showing around secret documents about the Russian poison Novitschok and the possession of several passports – allegedly bypassed the German secret services.
At least that’s what State Minister Hoppenstedt said in the committee. The SPD MP Jens Zimmermann is skeptical. “I was absolutely amazed that the BND knows nothing about Wirecard,” he told ntv.de after the hearing. Whereby he recognizes a back door for the Chancellery: after all, Hoppenstedt is not the secret service coordinator. This is Johannes Geismann and you don’t know what he knows. Unlike Hoppenstedt, Röller and the department head responsible for secret services, Bernhard Kotsch, he did not appear on the finance committee. There then almost only Hoppenstedt spoke, which means that there were at least no contradictions in the statements, said Zimmermann. “That was all filtered through Mr. Hoppenstedt,” says Zimmermann. He criticizes the appearance of the three interviewees: “The Chancellery has not contributed to the fact that the speculation is less.”
Stephan Thomae, who oversees the secret services for the FDP in the parliamentary control committee, also has ideas for speculation. “A payment service provider that also handles business in the gambling and porn industry from the Middle East and Asia is actually an obvious observation object for secret services,” Thomae told ntv.de. “I also don’t think that Marsalek was noticed so late.” Especially since reports indicate that a business partner Marsalek’s German authorities pointed out to Marsalek’s espionage stories as early as 2017. Thomae finds it “peculiar” that the BND should have ignored such information from a CFO of a DAX company.
A wild theory
If the reports about Marsalek and his Russia contacts are correct, he would have been a very interesting object of observation for the BND. Marsalek had loud “Financial Times“Among other things, trying to set up a private mercenary militia in Libya. And it should Cross connections between Marsalek and Russian mercenaries active in Libya. Then there are the Russia travel. Despite Marsalek’s penchant for bragging, the German secret service does not want to have noticed anything. An alternative, conceivably scandalous explanation would be: The German secret services knew at least partially about Wirecard’s dubious activities, but let the company do it out of interest in the object under observation. In principle, almost nothing is excluded in the hallways of the Bundestag. Almost anything seems conceivable in this billion-dollar fraud case.
Fritsche, whom Thomae considers “insufficiently illuminated”, could play a key role in the investigation. His advisory work for the Interior Minister Kickl, who is notorious for his contacts in the extreme right-wing milieu, was approved by the Chancellery – on the condition that he did not divulge any knowledge from his more than 20 years of leadership in the German secret services. “But what else did the Austrians reward him for so well?” Asks Thomae. Or, conversely, was there a German interest in Fritsche’s work in and his information from Austria? And how does that fit in with Fritsche’s advertising for Wirecard with Chancellor adviser Röller?
The U committee is approaching
Röller weighs in on the finance committee. Such appointments are nothing special. “If you only knew who is looking at everything here,” says Röller, according to the SPD MP Zimmermann, in one of his few statements. In fact, it does not seem unusual for the Chancellery to exchange ideas with representatives of DAX companies and to promote German corporate interests abroad. Then why these tight-lipped statements and contradictions?
The Chancellery presents the Fritsche appointment as a get-to-know meeting, although at this point there was already an appointment between Merkel and the lobbyist and ex-Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg. After his advertising, Merkel had campaigned for Wirecard in China. So the company was already well known. Left-wing MP Fabio di Masi announces a need for clarification in this context. “All the alarm bells are ringing for me,” he says about Fritsche’s activities after the finance committee meeting.
Di Masi is now relying on a committee of inquiry. Thomae regards the German secret services’ insistence on their ignorance as “another reason for an investigative committee”. The Greens also seem to be inclined to a U-Committee: Lisa Paus accuses the federal government of “naivety” in dealing with Wirecard. The co-ruling SPD parliamentary group is hesitant. Zimmermann says: “Today’s survey also showed that clarification is feasible without a committee. We believe that we are making so good progress.” The decision on this now rests with the Greens.