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Germany

Bonus Mile Scandal Consumes a Top Berlin Official

Gregor Gysi announced Wednesday he would resign from his post as Berlin's deputy mayor after admitting he used frequent flyer miles racked up on government travel for personal trips.

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Gregor Gysi: "I made an inexcusable mistake."

Germany's growing "bonus miles" scandal claimed yet another politician on Wednesday with the surprise resignation of the city-state of Berlin's deputy mayor and economics minister, Gregor Gysi.

Earlier this week, Gysi admitted to abusing his frequent flier miles during his time in the Bundestag, Germany's parliament. He offered his resignation on Wednesday evening.

"I made a mistake that there's no excuse for," Gysi said.

In doing so, he became the second politician in one week to quit his office over the scandal. After admitting financial ties to Frankfurt public relations executive Moritz Hunziger, who served as a private banker to his political friends in Berlin, as well as using government bonus miles for personal trips, rising Turkish political star Cem Özdemir handed in his resignation over the weekend.

Gysi's resignation marked the end of a remarkable rise for the longtime leader of the parliamentary group of the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS), the successor party to East Germany's communists. Flamboyant Gysi recently ran to become mayor of Berlin. He lost to Social Democrat Klaus Wowereit, but the PDS did score enough votes to enter into a coalition government. Media-savvy Gysi landed a slot as the city-state's economics minister and Wowereit's Number Two.

Tired of office?

But in recent years, Gysi had expressed frustration with German politics. "My decision the year before last to leave politics was the right one, but my hasty return, as I realize today, was a mistake. That's why I've stepped down from my political offices," he said on Wednesday.

Since he took office in Berlin six months ago, some have questioned whether best-selling author and talk show regular Gysi could hold his interest in political office. Manfred Güllner, head of the Forsa public opinion research institute asked the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" newspaper in June: "Would he rather take small parts in talk shows or will he stick it out through the entire legislative period until 2005?"

Wowereit said Wednesday that he regretted Gysi's decision. "I have to respect his decision and thank him for our fruitful work together," he said.

A growing scandal

A handful of other prominent German politicians have already been enveloped by the scandal, and it threatens to grow.

The country's environment minister, Jürgen Trittin, has also been caught up in the affair. Trittin is a leading member of the governing coalition's junior partner the Greens. Trittin has denied allegations of wrongdoing. The Environment Minister said he never used the miles from business trips for private travel: "I pay for private trips with private income. Since becoming a member of the government I have taken five personal trips with bonus miles earned on my private flights."

Günter Nooke, the deputy leader of the Christian Democratic Union and Christian Social Union parliamentary group, has also denied accusations of using frequent flier miles he racked up on government work for personal travel.

The scandal has created a major crisis in Berlin as new names emerge. On Wednesday, the president of the Bundestag, Social Democrat Wolfgang Thierse, sought to stop the blood-letting, saying he didn't think politicians implicated in the scandal should resign. "I don't think that's an appropriate reaction," he said, adding that it was better for them to recognize ethical standards.

Lufthansa and tabloid criticized

Two other parties – national flagship air carrier Lufthansa and the mass-circulation newspaper "Bild" – have also been the subject of enormous criticism this week for their roles in the affair. Thierse accused Lufthansa of supplying names of politicians to the newspaper in violation of the country's personal data protection law. The airline has so far refused to turn over a list of all elected officials who have used miles racked up during government travel for personal use. The government has sought the list so that it can get a grasp on the scope of the problem.

Meanwhile, Social Democratic Party General-Secretary Franz Müntefering has accused the "Bild" newspaper of playing party politics in favor of the conservative opposition during an election year. Initially, the paper accused three Green Party members and one member of the Party of Democratic Socialism of using government miles for personal travel. However, by Thursday, the paper published the names of politicians from almost every major political party in the country accused of abusing their government mileage accounts.

"Bild" editor Kai Diekmann defended his paper's reports. "When a politician from the left or the right takes perks at the taxpayers' cost, then it is the duty of journalists – regardless whether they work for the 'Süddeutsche Zeitung' or 'Bild'—to expose it," he told the "Süddeutsche Zeitung" newspaper.