One of the most protracted legal disputes in German corporate history has finally been put to rest. It comes as Deutsche Bank struggles to improve its image and as its outgoing co-CEO tries to leave with a clean slate.
It was only one sentence, uttered in a TV interview more than 14 years ago by a former Deutsche Bank CEO, but it set the ball rolling for what would become one of the most bitter and most protracted legal disputes in German corporate history.
In February 2002, Rolf Breuer, a former top executive at Germany's largest lender, called the creditworthiness of Leo Kirch's media empire into question. Months thereafter, the group filed for bankruptcy.
What followed were years of accusations, lawsuits and costly settlements between Deutsche and Kirch's heirs, who continued to pursue billions of euros in compensation after the media mogul's death in July 2011.
On Monday, the final chapter in this ongoing saga finally came to a close after a judge in Munich ruled that allegations of attempted fraud against five current and former Deutsche Bank CEOs could not be substantiated.
The decision, which can still be appealed, put to rest a nearly year-long case that had examined whether Jürgen Fitschen, who is expected to retire from his post as the bank's co-head in the coming weeks, gave false testimony along with four other former executives to shield Deutsche Bank from shelling out more money over the Kirch media group's bankruptcy.
'He executed me'
It all began in February 2002, when then-CEO Rolf Breuer gave an interview to Bloomberg Television. Asked about the creditworthiness of Kirch's media conglomerate, Breuer said "everything that you can read and hear" is that "the financial sector isn't prepared to provide further" loans or equity to Kirch.
Within months, the Kirch group had filed for insolvency - Germany's largest bankruptcy filing since World War II. At the same time, the blame game began.
Kirch accused Breuer of having triggered his company's insolvency by effectively freezing it out of credit markets. "He executed me, that Rolf," Kirch said at the time.
Deutsche was quick to absolve itself of any blame, citing corporate mismanagement as the reason the media empire went belly-up. Years of litigious back-and-forth ensued.
Nine years later, in early 2011, a regional court in Munich expressed a lack of confidence against Breuer and other current and former top executives Josef Ackermann and Tessen von Heydebreck as well as former board chairman Clemens Börsig in appellate proceedings. That's when prosecutors began their investigation into allegations of attempted fraud.
'A train full of documents'
In December 2012, the Munich regional court, the Oberlandesgericht, ordered Deutsche Bank to pay compensation to Kirch's heirs, but it didn't specify how much. Several days later, prosecutors raided Deutsche's headquarters in Frankfurt on suspicion of further allegations of attempted fraud.
Fifteen months later, in February 2014, the bank paid Kirch's heirs 928 million euros ($1.04 million) in a settlement, but the state prosecutors' investigations continued. In March 2014, they once again carried out raids and this time also searched the offices of some of the bank's lawyers.
Legal proceedings against Fitschen, Breuer, Ackermann, Börsig and von Heydebreck officially began on April 28, 2015, as prosecutors presented a 627 page-long bill of indictment. They had also gathered 10 terabytes of digital evidence against the bankers, or the equivalent of "a train full of documents," as judge Peter Noll put it.
A final death knell
But as that case wore on, things began to look increasingly shaky for the prosecution. Judge Noll expressed reservations later that summer that prosecutors would be able to come up with concrete proof of any misdoings by the bankers. The lawyers kept calling new witnesses, but none of them confirmed suspicions against Fitschen or his predecessors.
A final death knell in the prosecutors' case seemed to toll when on April 12, Noll denied a request to search Deutsche's premises once more.
By Monday, Fitschen and the other bankers were completely cleared of all charges. It marked a victory not only for Deutsche Bank, which is struggling to clean up its reputation after a slew of costly lawsuits over its alleged involvement in manipulating currency markets and rigging the Libor and Euribor interest rates. It has also been accused of skirting US sanctions and doing business with countries such as Iran.
It also marked a final victory for Jürgen Fitschen, who is due to leave his post on May 19.
"You can imagine how glad I am that this process has finally come to an end," Fitschen said on Monday.
cjc/hg (AP, AFP, dpa, Reuters)