The suspicion of corruption surrounding the former German president has led to questions about the relationships between politicians and business.
It's a matter of public interest whenever the boss of a company passes money to a politician or a party. According to German law, if the money is a donation of more than 5,000 euros ($6,585), it has to be officially declared. If the sum is above 10,000 euros, the donation must be published. If the business person receives a favor in return, public prosecutors begin a corruption investigation.
Declared donations lead to a relatively transparent situation. But for several decades, companies and political parties have increasingly relied on a form of donations known in Germany as "sponsoring." The classic example is that parties might invite businesses to rent a stand at a party conference. But the rental fees are not published, typically disappearing in the party's accounts as "sundry income."
Flourishing gray area
That practice allows a gray area to flourish that eases the path for bribery and corruption, says Christina Deckwirth of the organization LobbyControl. "Sponsorship always arouses the suspicion that some kind of reward is expected," Deckwirth said in an interview with DW.
It's this kind of suspicion which has led prosecutors to investigate Olaf Glaeseker, spokesman for and close associate of former President Christian Wulff. Glaeseker accompanied Wulff from his time as state premier of Lower Saxony through to the highest federal office in Germany.
The allegations of corruption relate in particular to Glaeseker's time in Lower Saxony. There, he's said to have - as state prosecutors put it - "helpfully promoted" events organized by event manager Manfred Schmidt. In return, Schmidt reportedly treated Glaeseker to a number of free holidays.
Their investigations led state prosecutors to apply for Wulff's immunity from prosecution to be lifted. In response, Wulff resigned as president. The suspicion is that he may have had a personal benefit from his public position. For example, a couple who were in business gave him cheap credit, which was later exchanged for a bank loan at an unusually low rate of interest.
So far, the investigators have come up with a lot of circumstantial evidence and hints, but nothing concrete. As in the case of the sponsorship of parties, it's hard to find real proof of "favors" received by politicians.
Non-governmental organizations are demanding tougher laws and clearer rules. Transparency International is calling for what it calls an "integrity offensive": The level at which donations to parties should have to be declared must be lowered, as must the level at which politicians must declare their income from other sources. And the same rules should apply for sponsorship that apply to donations.
"That means information must be made public," says Christian Humborg, director of the German section of Transparency International. "It must be clear who the sponsor is."
For companies, there's another advantage of sponsorship: they can set it off against tax, which they can't do with donations. Humborg wants to see the law changed on that, too.
Deutsche Bahn moves on its own
Germany's main railway operator, state-owned Deutsche Bahn, is the first company to draw consequences from the discussion. CEO Rudiger Grube told a newspaper, "We will no longer take part in any events and other kinds of political sponsorship." In 2011, the company had paid thousands of euros for stands at party conferences and other such events. Members of the German parliament will still get free travel, but the Deutsche Bahn has said it is discontinuing its discounts for journalists.
Transparency International describes this move as "long overdue." But Deutsche Bahn is a special case, and it has long been the subject of criticism. "It's hard to explain why a public company which is owned entirely by the citizens of the country should be engaged in political sponsorship," says Humborg.
Christina Deckwirth of LobbyControl argues that it's something the politicians should be dealing with. The Social Democrats and the Green Party have already demanded tougher rules on sponsorship. But, as Christian Humborg points out, "The parties could provide more information already - they don't have to wait for a law."
'Trust in the political parties has suffered'
For example, little changed in the wake of a scandal over sponsoring two years ago involving the then-premier of the state North Rhine-Westphalia, Jürgen Rüttgers. His party, the conservative Christian Democrats, had circulated a kind of price-list for stands at a party events, with different prices depending on whether Rüttgers turned up for a brief chat or not. The opposition called it "Rent-a-Rüttgers." The party lost the state election shortly afterwards, and Rüttgers withdrew from active politics. But there was no change in the rules on transparency regarding political sponsorship.
Then it was Rüttgers - now it's Wulff: "Trust in Germany's political representation has suffered," says Humborg. He has to admit, "If we look at the issue of party financing, Germany doesn't look that bad compared to other countries." But he adds, "We did need a few scandals to get us this far."
Author: Klaus Dahmann / mll
Editor: Gabriel Borrud