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Corruption Catches Up With Germany

Tamsin Walker
December 19, 2005

A report published this month by Transparency International shows that Germans believe corruption is gaining ground when it comes to crime. Public faith in the morals of politicians is at a particularly low ebb.

Money talks in the shady world of business dealsImage: Bilderbox

Germany is playing a game of catch-up. Although corruption has long been part of the fabric of society, an unwavering adherence to the tenet "ignorance is bliss" has served as a buffer zone for those involved in the business of shady deals. But now the winds of change have begun to whip at the nation's door as Germans realize their country is affected too.

Corruption is indeed widespread in Germany, according to Transparency International (TI), a non-governmental organization devoted to combating the practice. TI defines it as "the misuse of entrusted power for private gain."

The very notion of corruption has been promoted in people's perceptions, according to the German chapter's head, Hansjörg Elshorst. "It is now on the agenda and is getting more media attention, which heightens interest," he said. So much so that Germans wrongly view their country as being more corrupt than western Europe collectively perceives itself to be, TI surveys suggest.

Corporate corruption

While the findings of the TI corruption barometer show politicians to have the most sullied standing among the German public, Elshorst is at pains to point out that it is only a matter of time before the woeful reality of corruption in the business world seeps into the national psyche.

Kohl in Bedrängnis
Former Chancellor Helmut Kohl was beset by a funding scandalImage: AP

"The first corruption scandals to hit the media were of a political nature, so people simply assume that politicians are the bad guys. We have to regain some balance and demonstrate to people the reality of the situation in other areas," Elshorst said, referring to bent business practices, which, in the absence of a suitably prominent name, are generally of little interest to the outside world.

The problem is immense. Uwe Dolata, spokesman for the German Association of Detectives (BDK) and an expert in white-collar crime, says corruption is so inherent in German business that the police have created a special division to deal with it.

"For a long time white-collar crime was a very uncomfortable subject and we had no specialist detectives in the field," Dolata said. "Now we have target-trained financial investigators in every state across Germany."

Multiple dangers

Dolata stresses the importance of clamping down on corruption in the business world, which he says is not only damaging to the economy, society and democracy in Germany, but can also pose a threat to public health.

Bauboom in Peking
The construction industry is just one which is prone to corruptionImage: AP

"A contractor takes the highest sum of money offered but is not really interested in how the job is done," he said, adding that having secured a contract through bribery, a client might be inclined to make savings at the cost of safety in order to recoup the cost of the sweetener.

With an estimated 95 percent of corporate corruption cases going unreported, there is apparently massive scope for tighter measures, both corrective and preventative, to fight it. Dolata believes one step could be introducing ombudsmen, third parties to whom those in the know can quietly and anonymously blow the whistle on those in the wrong. He cites the Deutsche Bahn (DB), Germany's rail operator, as an example of an organization that has managed to cut corruption through the introduction of such a system.

Since DB opted to give priority to fighting internal corruption back in 2000, its ombudsman has helped to uncover 400 cases and subsequently reported a fall in the number of new ones. DB could be a model for other as well as for the next generation of managers, who Dolata says have a surprisingly relaxed attitude to corporate crime.

Enciting change

Dolata is repeatedly faced with tainted young opinions at the University of Würzburg, where teaches anti-corruption. "Students come to my lectures believing that corruption is an essential part of the business world. Their approach is one of 'everyone does it and if I want to get ahead, I'll have to do it too.' The blame for that thinking lies largely with the media," he said.

Sie sind sich einig, die rot-rote Koalition in Berlin steht.
Sealed with a cordial hand-shakeImage: AP

If the widespread belief is that bribery rules, and that belief is reflected in reality, any number of ombudsmen won't necessarily solve the problem. Transparency International has long been calling for a corruption register that would operate like a black list.

The last government came close to introducing such a register, but as yet, there has been no indication from the new coalition as to whether it will be pushed through.

"A central register would make companies rather than individuals suffer," Elshorst said. "Firms need to be motivated to change. Large companies have already done a lot because they realize how their image can be damaged, but smaller businesses have not yet been put under any pressure to change."

But even if that change is enforced via a structured naming and shaming process, there would be nothing to stop crooked private contractors from continuing to collaborate with those on the black list.

Ultimately, it would remain a question of conscience.

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