Former Wirecard boss Braun stonewalls German lawmakers’ inquiry

Former Wirecard CEO testifies before German parliamentary committee in Berlin
Wirecard's former boss Markus Braun looks on, ahead of testifying before a German parliamentary committee in Berlin, Germany, November 19, 2020. REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch/Pool?

November 19, 2020

By Christian Kraemer and John O’Donnell

BERLIN/FRANKFURT (Reuters) – Wirecard’s former boss stonewalled questions from lawmakers on Thursday when he was temporarily released from jail for an inquiry into post-war Germany’s biggest corporate fraud.

Markus Braun, wearing his hallmark turtle neck and a blazer, declined to answer more than 50 questions about Wirecard’s demise, other than to say no German officials behaved inappropriately.

Braun, who has denied any wrongdoing and said Wirecard was the victim of a wider fraud, is in jail awaiting trial. He told lawmakers on Thursday he had confidence in the German legal system but said little else in a prepared speech.

The former chief executive’s stance is a setback for lawmakers investigating the implosion of a German tech star once worth $28 billion, which folded owing billions.

Braun said he had also refused to speak to Munich state prosecutors, who have charged him with fraud and embezzlement, although he pledged to cooperate with them.

Some of the German parliamentarians, who were visibly irritated, resorted to posing questions of Braun such as about his family, before the hearing was temporarily disbanded.

Braun’s appearance, which is being closely watched in Germany and again highlighted the Wirecard scandal, increasing pressure on German chancellor Angela Merkel and Finance Minister Olaf Scholz ahead of 2021 national elections.

Wirecard’s collapse embarrassed the German government, which prides itself on a reputation for rectitude and reliability, amid criticism that authorities ignored red flags.

LOBBYING

Lawmakers told Reuters they had hoped to find out about Braun’s contact with German officials, in particular a meeting in November 2019 with deputy finance minister Joerg Kukies.

German authorities have rejected any suggestion of improper government influence involving Wirecard. Braun too said there had been no improper behaviour by officials.

Asked on Thursday by Reuters about Braun’s meeting with Kukies, the Finance Ministry referred to an earlier statement that it touched on topics including allegations of market manipulation, as well as, more generally, cryptocurrencies and the business model of payment firms.

Scholz, who heads Germany’s finance ministry and is responsible for regulator BaFin, has also been criticised for the authorities’ failure to take Wirecard to task, spending years probing the company’s critics instead.

Scholz has since pledged to tighten financial controls.

The affair has also reached Germany’s chancellery as the government has said Merkel brought up a planned Wirecard acquisition in China during a visit there in September 2019 and that a senior official subsequently pledged it further support.

In an official parliamentary response, the government said that Merkel did not know at the time of the irregularities at Wirecard, which was dismantled after its disclosure of a 1.9 billion euro hole in its accounts in June.

Prosecutors have been criticised for not spotting problems, instead investigating journalists at the Financial Times, which first published allegations about its accounting.

(Additional reporting by Joern Poltz; Writing by John O’Donnell; Editing by Alexander Smith)