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Wulff's last chance

Carla Bleiker / cmkAugust 28, 2013

Former German President Christian Wulff is due to appear in court to answer allegations of receiving and granting benefits. He could be sentenced - or restore his reputation.

Former German President Christian Wulff (Photo by Nigel Treblin/Getty Images)
Image: Getty Images

In the end, Christian Wulff was unwilling to pay a fine in order to put to rest allegations that he had misused the office of the German president for his personal benefit. In a Hanover regional court on Tuesday (27.08.2013), Wulff rejected the offer and insisted on the opportunity to defend himself in court. The trial is scheduled to start on November 1.

Oktoberfest with consequences

At the center of the allegations is an Oktoberfest visit in 2008, when Wulff, then the state premier of Lower Saxony, traveled with his wife Bettina to the folk festival in Munich and allowed filmmaker David Groenewold to cover a part of his hotel expenses. At issue is the sum of almost 800 euros (around $1,000). After the trip, Wulff wrote a letter to the multinational conglomerate Siemens using state letterhead, in which he is said to have lobbied the company to finance one of Groenewold's film projects.

Wulff will not, however, have to face the initial charges of corruption sought by prosecutors. The regional court downgraded the charge after reviewing the facts of the case against him.

Christian (r) and Bettina Wulff and David Groenewold Foto: Felix Hörhager/dpa +++(c) dpa - Bildfunk+++ pixel
Bettina and Christian Wulff visited the 2008 Oktoberfest in Munich, with filmmaker David Groenewold (center)Image: picture-alliance/dpa

No abuse of office

"With a corruption charge, one additional condition would have been required," explained lawyer Sascha Böttner. "The public official must not only receive an advantage, but he must also have violated his public duties." The court did not rule that to be the case.

"An acceptance of a benefit would be the case when the public official receives benefits to which he is not entitled," said Böttner. "That's the case if Wulff did nothing wrong in his role as president because of the payment, but he still should not have accepted the money."

In short, the court recognized that Wulff possibly accepted a gift that he should not have accepted. But it does not assume that Wulff abused the power of his office as a result of this gift.

In serious cases of corruption, the accused can expect a prison sentence of up to five years. "The penalties for a conviction of acceptance of benefits is much lighter than the penalties for bribery: either a fine or up to three years in prison," said Böttner. "The benefit in this case, a value of under 800 euros, is classed in the lower area. A fine would be expected, in the event of a conviction."

Secret loans, private threats

Eva Luise and Horst Köhler Foto: Wolfgang Kumm dpa/lbn
Köhler resigned as German president in May 2010Image: picture-alliance/dpa

The Oktoberfest visit was, by far, not the only stumbling block in Wulff's political career. The youngest ever German head of state took over the office in June 2010 following the resignation of President Horst Köhler. Just two years later, Wulff himself gave up the office, preceded by investigations and allegations of corruption.

During his time as state premier of Lower Saxony and as president, Wulff and his wife often vacationed in the holiday villas of several entrepreneur friends. In 2008, Wulff took on a private loan of over half a million euros from Edith Geerkens, the wife of businessman Egon Geerkens, to purchase a home. When he was later asked about the loan in the Lower Saxony state parliament, he denied any business dealings with the businessman - neglecting to mention the loan with his wife.

In December 2011, the evening before tabloid newspaper Bild was due to publish an article on the president's private loans, Wulff tried to prevent publication by leaving a message for the editor of the newspaper, threatening him with "war." Wulff dismissed his spokesman a few days after the incident, but this sacrifice proved useless. On February 17, 2012 he eventually resigned as president.

'Incredible naiveté'

"The resignation was necessary because the office of the president had been damaged," said Wolfgang Seibel, politics professor at the University of Konstanz, speaking with DW. But after a lengthy investigation that involved many attorneys and thousands of pages of court documents, Wulff will now only face one charge in court. But even those acts for which he will not be prosecuted, such as the private loans, were disreputable, said Seibel.

Christian Wulff and wife Bettina . Foto: Michael Kappeler dpa (Zu dpa 0186 vom 07.01.2013) +++(c) dpa - Bildfunk+++
Bettina and Christian Wulff separated from each other in JanuaryImage: picture-alliance/dpa

In any case, the vacations, the infamous voicemail message or the Oktoberfest visit weren't Wulff's greatest problems. "What was so remarkable about Wulff's behavior was less the actual incidents, but the incredible naiveté with which he handled them," said Seibel. "It was his conduct that was his downfall."

Seibel said that by rejecting the fine and insisting on the trial, Wulff has now done the right thing. "This is Wulff's last chance to permanently redeem himself."