Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Former Austrian finance minister sentenced to 8 years in prison for bribery

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Former Austrian Finance Minister Karl-Heinz Grasser was sentenced to 8 years in jail after he was found guilty of taking bribes in one of the country’s biggest postwar corruption trials.

The Vienna court ruled that Grasser was part of a group that received bribes for helping the winning bidder in a 961 million-euro ($1.2 billion) sale of state-owned apartments in 2004, presiding judge Marion Hohenecker said in a verdict Friday. Several other defendants charged with related crimes were also found guilty and sentenced to jail and fines.

Grasser became finance minister in 2000 as a close ally of the late Austrian nationalist Joerg Haider, who had entered a coalition with the conservative People’s Party for the first time. A handsome and media-savvy 30-something at the time, Grasser quickly turned into the star of the cabinet. After falling out with Haider, he ran for the People’s Party, but went into business after losing the 2006 election.

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“This court is convinced that Karl-Heinz Grasser revealed the upper limit of the rival bid” and passed it on through his accomplices, Hohenecker said in her reasoning. The winning bidder’s success “was achieved through bribery and was only possible because of the intentional abuse of authority” by Grasser.

The Vienna criminal court heard arguments and testimony in 168 sessions over three years.

Grasser and most of the defendants have denied any wrongdoing. Grasser’s lawyer, Manfred Ainedter, quickly said in a statement that his client would appeal the decision.

Only co-defendant Peter Hochegger, a lobbyist, said he knew that part of a fee he received was meant for Grasser. Hochegger was also found guilty and sentenced to 6 years in jail.

The investigation that led to the charges started in 2009 as an offshoot of an unrelated criminal probe into the near-collapse of Immofinanz AG, the winning bidder in the apartment auction.

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According to the prosecutors, Grasser and the others told the Immofinanz-led group that their last rival in the auction offered 960 million euros for the asset. Immofinanz then filed a bid that was 1 million euros higher.

It later paid a fee of 9.6 million euros to Hochegger, who took part of the money and passed on the rest to a company that split it into three secret accounts in Liechtenstein, each of which received 2.4 million euros, authorities said.

In addition, prosecutors claimed that Grasser was a beneficiary of one of the accounts, a finding the court confirmed. Grasser denied it and said Hochegger’s claims were “untrue.”

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