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Conservatives Face Kickback Scandal

Hardy Graupner (ncy)
December 20, 2004

Christian Democratic Union leader Angela Merkel is reportedly considering replacing the party's secretary general, who's come under fire for accepting money from utility giant RWE.

Meyer and Merkel: Can the CDU stomach more personnel losses?Image: AP

Before Laurenz Meyer was appointed as Christian Democratic Union (CDU) secretary general in the year 2000, he worked as a manager for RWE, one of Germany's major energy producers and water management enterprises. Following a string of investigative reports last week, Meyer was forced to admit that he received some €40,000 ($53,000) from RWE in 2000 while already occupying the post of CDU secretary general.

The 56-year-old jack of all trades brushed aside all criticism on Friday, saying that he was entitled to those payments for his efforts to achieve a smooth handover of affairs at managerial level before he took up the post as the CDU chief's mouthpiece.

But according to Der Spiegel newsmagazine, Meyer enjoyed an additional financial bonus from RWE at a later stage of some €66,000 to sweeten his already decent salary as a federal parliamentarian and CDU secretary general. Moreover, Laurenz Meyer has said there was anything wrong in his getting RWE electricity and gas supplies in his home at a much reduced rate, while the bulk of the population has to put up with price hikes in this sector almost every year.

Closing ranks

RWE utility company headquarters in EssenImage: AP

Meyer himself has promised to reveal as soon as possible exactly what payments he's received from RWE but insists that the whole affair is nothing but a huge misunderstanding. Various newspapers wrote on Monday that it would be a big surprise if Meyer were to survive this week as CDU secretary general. Hardly anyone in his party has put in a good word for him in recent days: they're worried that the former RWE manager's behavior may be damaging to their chances in regional elections in Meyer's home state of North-Rhine Westphalia in 2005.

"I think it's absolutely right that CDU chief Angela Merkel has decided to investigate the matter fully," Christian Wulff, CDU premier of Lower Saxony, said over the weekend. "When all the details are out of the bag, she'll analyze them in a non-partisan way and draw the right conclusion. I don't think there's anyone in our party who wants her to sweep the matter under the carpet."

Even the governing Social Democrats (SPD) seem to be concerned about the implications of the scandal.

"The Meyer affair is something that all mainstream parties in this country should be worried about," Meyer's SPD counterpart, Klaus-Uwe Benneter Benneter said. "We simply can't afford to fuel voter disenchantment any further -- we've had enough of that already in the past few years. Angela Merkel would be well-advised to look into the matter speedily and not run away from what I agree is an unpleasant task for her."

Merkel probed, too

Apparently alerted to the possibilities of another -- possibly more damaging scandal -- the "Meyer affair" has led the CDU to examine party chief Merkel's income, according to the Leipziger Volkszeitung newspaper.

Merkel was the first CDU head paid a salary from the party treasury, as past leaders either earned above average incomes as Germany's chancellor or as head of the CDU parliamentary group. From April 2000 to late Sept. 2002, when she was finally elected head of the parliamentary group, Merkel received €10,000 per month from party coffers -- payments that continued for several afterwards, the paper wrote quoting "CDU politicians well acquainted with the finances."

If Laurenz Meyer is forced to step down from his post as secretary general, the opposition conservatives would face yet another untimely reshuffle following the recent resignation of parliamentary finance spokesman Friedrich Merz and the resignation of health expert Horst Seehofer over irreconcilable differences regarding the country's social and economic reform endeavors.

The conservatives thus stand to lose important expertise in two regional elections next year and gamble their good starting position for the 2006 general election.

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