German health minister defends use of government car while on vacation | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 27.07.2009
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German health minister defends use of government car while on vacation

After the theft of her government issued Mercedes in Spain, Ulla Schmidt is on the hot seat about why the car was even there in the first place.

Ulla Schmidt gets out of her Limousine in Berlin

Ulla Schmidt may yet regret bringing her car down to Spain

German Health Minister Ulla Schmidt defended Monday her use of a chauffeur-driven government car while on holiday in Alicante, Spain, as friction grew within Chancellor Angela Merkel's government over the matter, which came to light when the car was stolen after her driver's hotel room was burglarized.

Her Social Democratic Party (SPD) said Schmidt took part in a telephone conference from Spain with party leaders and affirmed that she had only used the car in compliance with German law.

SPD party general secretary Hubertus Heil said she had voiced willingness to answer questions in parliament about her actions. "A government car allocated to you personally can legally be used for private purposes. Ulla Schmidt was acting within the law," said Heil.

A Health Ministry spokesman also defended her, telling reporters Schmidt always repaid the government for any private trips in the car.

"It's cheaper to drive a car there for her, as it costs 500 euros to go there and back in petrol. That's the per diem cost of hiring a car like that in Spain," he said. Ministerial cars in Germany are armour-plated to protect against assassinations.

The spokesman rejected questions about whether a meeting with elderly Germas living on the Costa Blanca justified sending the car 5,000 kilometres to shuttle Schmidt a short distance.

"It doesn't matter whether she had one, five or a dozen official appointments: it is simply her right," the official said. The ministry added that Schmidt had flown to Spain at her own expense and had only been using the vehicle for official engagements.

Heavy criticism

Still, the claim that Schmidt's use of the car was legal may not wash with the public, and certainly has not kept her political rivals from rounding on her.

Patrick Doering, an MP for the opposition pro-business Free Democrats, said: "I cannot imagine that the German embassy in Madrid was not in a position to drive the minister to one or several events."

Georg Schirmbeck, a Christian Democrat, joined ranks with opposition voices criticizing Schmidt.

It was a "scandalous waste of taxpayers' money that the SPD politician sent her official car plus chauffeur across Europe to her Spanish holiday resort," Schirmbeck told German daily Neue Osnabruecker Zeitung.

Reiner Holznagel from the taxpayers' union, a pressure group, accused her of waffling: "Mrs Schmidt has gone back and forth.

"When we asked her on Saturday, she said she was not using the official car for private purposes and that she had her own car on site. In the meantime, the ministry said she was in fact using it for private purposes and was paying for it.

"The fact remains that the car had to go from Berlin to Alicante and that costs a lot of money," Holznagel told news channel N24.

The timing of the growing scandal is unfortunate for the SPD, which had hoped to use a quiet political week to gear up their election campaign, ahead of Germany's general election on September 27.

mrh/dpa/AFP

Editor: Neil King

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