Members of the German Bundestag only have to give a sketchy declaration of the extra money they make outside parliament from lectures, books and company boards. Tougher legislation may be about to change that.
Germany is a signatory to the UN Convention against Corruption (UNCAC), but has never passed anti-corruption laws of its own.
Christian Humborg, head of Transparency International's German branch, said when no clear trade-off is involved, there are rarely any consequences for lawmakers who are influenced by cash payments, advisor contracts or lucrative side jobs
"That is a disgrace for a democratic state like Germany," Humborg added.
Section 108e of the German Criminal Code has penalized the direct purchase or sale of a lawmaker's vote since 1994 with fines of up to five years in prison. To take effect, authorities have to provide evidence of payments to an MP ahead of an election. That has never happened on the federal level.
According to Humborg, a member of the city council in the eastern German town of Neuruppin was, however, found guilty of accepting a loan in exchange for approval of a hotel construction project. Investigations are ongoing in six similar cases in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia.
Conflict of interest
Leading prosecutors, the Federal Court of Justice and even German export companies have urged strict anti-graft legislation for members of parliament in order to maintain credibility on the global stage. In Germany, it is illegal for public officials to accept even small give-aways like pens. But so-called "thank-you bonuses" doled out to parliamentarians after a vote favorable to the sponsor are not investigated. Many gifts and invitations are regarded as entirely legal benefits that comply with "parliamentary customs," Humborg said.
According to him, the slack rules apply to thousands of lawmakers whose misconduct cannot be punished. Humborg pointed out that cash is rarely handed out these days. Instead, companies try to gain influence by offering lucrative board positions, consultancy contracts and other jobs.
German MPs' side earnings have been under public fire for years. Since 2009, the politicians have raked in 22.5 million euros (about $29 million) in addition to their government salaries, according to government watchdog abgeordnetenwatch.de. All members of parliament are obligated to report jobs outside the Bundestag to the chamber's president. Of the Bundestag's 620 members, 193 are registered as having an official side job.
Influence tending toward corruption is conceivable when income from a side job by far surpasses a parliamentarian's salary, said Gregor Hackmack of abgeordnetenwatch.de. He added that in such cases, the official mandate is bound to be influenced.
Parliamentarians were outraged to learn Peter Steinbrück, the center-left candidate to be chancellor next year, has received almost 500,000 euros in fees from speeches. The ruling Christian Democrats (CDU) and liberal Free Democrats (FDP) were most indignant.
Hackmack called it "pure hypocrisy," saying that if anything, the politicians who earn the most from side jobs are in the CDU and FDP.
A 2005 ruling made it mandatory for members of parliament to report income from side jobs. But the parties are yet to agree on more transparency. The Bundestag merely lists paid engagements and contracts in three categories, depending on general fees earned. The top category lists "income over 7,000 euros."
"People who tick that box can theoretically make millions," Hackmack said. He called for a more transparent system that lists the exact remuneration parliamentarians receive, saying only then can voters decide whether a lawmaker is still credible.
Caving to pressure
Faced with increasing pressure over disclosing outside fees and income, the Bundestag has put the issue on its agenda this week. Hackmack is convinced there will be agreement on a new approach at some point.
By comparison, members of the US congress have to report all their earnings and debts along with every invitation to lunch they receive. The same is true for their spouses and children. In the UK, all income exceeding 1 percent of MPs' salary is checked. Spanish lawmakers are not allowed to work for companies that win state contracts. In Italy, senior government officials are not allowed to head a company.
Members of the EU Commission are prohibited from taking on any side jobs at all.