Is Helmut Kohl a Crook?

On Jan. 18, amid revelations that his Christian Democratic Union accepted 2.4 million deutsche marks ($1.2 million) in secret contributions, former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl resigned as the party’s honorary chairman. Kohl claims he used the funds for legitimate “party-building” activities, but refuses to name a single donor to clarify the situation. Has Kohl done anything illegal? If so, what would the punishment be?

German campaign-finance law places no limit on contributions to parties, requiring only that donors of more than 20,000 deutsche marks ($10,500) per year be identified in an annual report to Parliament. (Contributions to individual candidates are unregulated.) The CDU committed a civil offense by ignoring this law and now faces punitive fines totaling twice the undisclosed contributions, in addition to having to forfeit the actual contributions to Parliament. (Fines are deducted from the campaign subsidies the government gives to the party.) 

German parties must also report expenditures on broad categories like “staff” and “political operations” in their annual report to Parliament. The CDU failed to report expenditures of the undisclosed contributions as well, but Kohl insists he used the money for building the party in the former East Germany.

Kohl’s refusal to name names is not illegal–the only illegality surrounding the funds was the party’s original failure to disclose them. For political reasons, the CDU may try to force him to talk by suing for “breach of trust,” but the party would still have to pay the fines.

While an internal CDU audit has now uncovered $6.3 million worth of undisclosed contributions between 1989 and 1998, much of the money trail remains obscured by secret bank accounts. So secret, in fact, that the scheme came to light only by chance, when a tax probe of a former CDU treasurer revealed $550,000 in contributions from a Canadian arms dealer. The dealer allegedly sought to ease the sale of Panzer tanks to Saudi Arabia.

The scandal continues to widen. Allegations have emerged suggesting a French conglomerate paid $44 million in bribes to the CDU to encourage the sale of a German government-owned refinery. On Jan. 22, German television speculated that the French government transferred $15.4 million of that amount to the CDU as part of the transaction.

Kohl could face criminal prosecution if it turns out he accepted bribes for specific government action. (The prosecutor would have to establish an exchange of money for the desired action.) He currently enjoys parliamentary immunity, but Parliament would almost certainly suspend it at prosecutorial request.

Some say Kohl’s handiwork reflects an American fund-raising style unprecedented in German politics. But American law prohibits individual contributions in excess of $25,000 per year (up to $20,000 to a national party and $5,000 to state and local parties in a given year; up to $1,000 to a candidate in a given election).

U.S. law also prohibits contributions from any individual contractor or partnership doing business with the government, and requires a “best effort” to obtain the name, address, occupation, and employer of every individual contributing over $200. 

Explainer thanks Professor Karl-Heinz Nassmacher of Carl von Ossietzky University in Oldenburg, Germany.

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