The SPD-affiliated agency Network Media GmbH (NWMD) is accused of pocketing between 3,000 and 7,000 euros ($3,186 - $7,435) from companies and lobby groups, the ZDF program "Frontal 21" reported on Tuesday.
Politicians who benefited from the sponsored talks are said to include the likes of Minister for Justice Heiko Maas, Minister for Labor and Social Affairs Andrea Nahles, Minister for the Environment Barbara Hendricks, Minister for Family Affairs Manuela Schwesig, Parliamentary Group Leader Thomas Oppermann and General Secretary Katarina Barley.
NWMD confirmed that such talks took place. However, it said its mission was to find partners who would incur the costs of hosting such events.
The agency has since accused "Frontal 21" of "bypassing the truth" in its report, maintaining that it did not profit from the meetings. It also said that it does not choose which groups and individuals took part in these so-called "forward" talks. Some 20 such meetings are reported to have taken place. NWMD also pointed out that some of these talks were organized without financial support from sponsors.
'Very clever, but nevertheless unlawful'
Experts nonetheless expressed their suspicion that these talks may have violated the law governing political parties. "The initial suspicion is that there has been breach in party law here," "Frontal 21" quoted the Munich legal expert Frank Saliger of saying.
"This kind of sponsorship is clever, but is nevertheless an unlawful circumvention of party funding rules," the Konstanz-based administrative lawyer Sophie Schönberger said.
The organization LobbyControl denounced the practice. "Politics must not be bought or even appear to be for sale," campaigner Christina Deckwirth said. She accused the SPD of providing "exclusive access to politics to lobbyists able to afford it."
Strong criticism also came from opposition parties. Leading member of Germany's Left Party, Klaus Ernst, said: "When it comes to whose voice is heard among SPD officials, it's obviously a question of who has the deepest pockets." Ernst also voiced his suspicion that SPD legislation, for example concerning temporary work and tenancy law, had been influenced during these exclusive meetings.
Gabriel: 'I know nothing about this'
Following the reports, the SPD initially refused to comment. However, SPD leader and vice-Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel was quoted by "Frontal 21" of saying that he knew nothing of the sponsored talks, nor had he ever participated in such talks.
The SPD went on to partially disclose its sponsorship revenue. At the party conference last December alone, the party collected some 555,000 euros in sponsorship payments. However, the SPD refused to disclose who contributed how much "due to contractual reasons."
dm/kl (dpa, AFP)