Austrian party leader quits parliament over accusation of sexual assault

FILE PHOTO: Former member of the Greens Pilz addresses a news conference in Vienna
FILE PHOTO: Former member of the Greens Peter Pilz addresses a news conference in Vienna, Austria July 25, 2017. REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger/File Photo

November 4, 2017

VIENNA (Reuters) – The fallout from the Harvey Weinstein scandal spread to Austria on Saturday as one of the country’s best-known politicians said he would give up his seat in parliament over an allegation of sexual assault.

Veteran left-wing lawmaker Peter Pilz, 63, has been a fixture in Austrian politics for decades, having made a name for himself railing against arms deals with countries accused of human rights abuses and leading investigations into corruption like one this year connected to Austrian fighter-jet purchases.

He also recently pulled off a political coup – leaving the Greens this summer to form his own party, Pilz List, which not only beat the Greens in last month’s parliamentary election, it also passed the 4 percent threshold for entering parliament, which the Greens fell just short of.

Weekly newspaper Falter reported on Saturday that Pilz had repeatedly groped a female employee of the center-right European People’s Party during a conference in the Alps four years ago. The article included her description of the incident. She said Pilz was “relatively drunk” at the time.

Pilz — one of the more colorful figures in Austrian politics, a straight talker fond of singing rock songs like “Wild Thing” at party events — said he could not remember what happened.

“Not remembering is no excuse,” Pilz told a news conference, adding that Falter’s editor in chief had assured him the report was thoroughly researched.

“Because of these accusations, which I take extremely seriously, even though I do not remember, I will not take up my mandate in the coming parliament. I will not be at the swearing-in ceremony on Thursday,” he said.

In the wake of the Weinstein scandal and the resignations over inappropriate behavior that have followed, including that of British Defence Minister Michael Fallon this week, Austrian media had begun to ask whether there were previously unreported cases of sexual harassment by influential Austrians.

U.S. movie mogul Weinstein has been accused by numerous women of having sexually harassed or assaulted them in incidents dating back to the 1980s, including three who said they were raped. Weinstein denies having non-consensual sex with anyone.

Pilz said he would work to bring all the facts to light in the accusations made against him. But he also said he rejected separate allegations by a former colleague that he sexually harassed her on dozens of occasions. That case was first reported by Austrian media on Friday.

Pilz said he would support his party’s work in parliament “from the outside”, though he did not say specifically that he was stepping down as party leader.

A spokeswoman for Pilz was not immediately available for comment.

(Refiles with Vienna dateline)

(Reporting by Francois Murphy; Editing by Ros Russell)