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German Press Review: Fat Cats Get Off the Hook

The acquittal of six top German managers in the high-profile Mannesmann mobile phone company trial led the editorial pages. Though the execs are off the hook legally, the papers still have probing questions.

Six top German executives were cleared of charges of breach of trust relating to their decision to pay themselves multi-million dollar bonuses when the Mannesmann mobile phone company was sold to Vodaphone in 2000.

The court was concerned with whether what the managers did was legal, not whether or not it was moral, wrote the B.Z. in Berlin. "That’s why they were acquitted," the paper wrote, "And it’s good that they were, because if the court had ruled differently, judges would in future be expected to decide whether a chairman’s income is appropriate, or a takeover price too high." Nonetheless, the editorial continued, "by expressly differentiating between the legal and the moral issues, the court has showed the managing classes the yellow card. "What Ackermann, Funk, Zwickel and Esser did may not have been illegal, but they certainly went over the top when they handed out those bonuses to the Mannesmann board," the paper added. When managers already earn millions, the editors concluded, they don’t need to be given more just for doing their job well.

The decisive sentence in the verdict, according to Munich’s Abendzeitung, was the judge’s remark that "some of the company’s practices provoked astonishment." This is the implicit accusation that will always stick to the Mannesmann scandal, it write. "Powerful people lacking any restraint got rich at the expense of others," the editors concluded. "Coming at a time when managers are calling on employees to tighten their belts," the paper remarked, "this sends out a disastrous signal."

"In dubio pro reo," or the accused has to be given the benefit of the doubt, wrote the Munich-based Süddeutsche Zeitung. In doing this, the paper wrote, the court has proven that no one in Germany can be convicted on the basis of prejudice alone, "but the acquittals will do nothing to restore the managers’ lost credibility," the editors concluded.

Following their acquittal, Esser and Ackermann immediately assessed the decision as a restoration of their moral integrity. But the editors of the General-Anzeiger in Bonn disagreed. "Only someone who things that 'everything goes as long as it's no illegal' can possibly see it that way," the paper wrote.

"The men haven’t given the slightest indication of ever having questioned their actions," wrote the Express newspaper in Cologne. Nor have we heard a word of regret. "Instead we are treated to their smug satisfaction over the verdicts," the editors opined. "They all came out grinning like Cheshire cats – Klaus Esser in particular, who unashamedly pocketed the biggest sum, and has the gall to boast that he behaved entirely correctly. Thus speaks a man who’s completely lost touch with reality and lacks all sense of decency," the paper concluded.

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