Sunday , 21 July 2024
Global Economy

Devilish plan

There are few words, short chat messages that could bring a twist in a Hamburg political thriller. It's about the Hamburg private bank MM Warburg, its illegal cum-ex transactions and the question of whether Hamburg officials and politicians stood in front of the bank to protect them when the traditional bank was supposed to pay back its loot in 2016. So far, all those responsible have asserted that there has never been any influence on the tax procedure of MM Warburg.

But after research by WDR, investigators from North Rhine-Westphalia have now come across incriminating material that casts doubt on these statements. In particular, the WhatsApp chat history of a Hamburg tax officer raises questions in the scandal, which is currently also dealing with a parliamentary committee of inquiry in Hamburg.

Chat message could reveal plan

The Hamburg private bank operated cum-ex stock trading between 2007 and 2011, like many financial institutions worldwide. In the case of Cum-Ex, those involved reached into the state coffers. They claimed taxes from the state that they had never paid. The Warburg Bank did the same. When the tax office in Hamburg found out about it in 2016, it first wanted to reclaim the money: around 47 million euros for the cum-ex deals from 2009 alone. But then the authority suddenly changed its mind and dropped the claims. Why?

A raid should provide information. The investigators from NRW made representations to the Hamburg tax authority and the tax office for large companies in the autumn – including the tax officer responsible for the Warburg-Bank, Daniela P.

In fact, according to information from WDR, the investigators found what they were looking for. The explosive chat comes from Daniela P's mobile phone. On November 17, 2016, she wrote to a confidant. That was a few hours after the tax authorities surprisingly decided to forgo the 47 million euros from cum-ex deals. At 3:20 p.m., officer P. pressed "send". Her devilish plan, she writes, worked. Eighteen minutes later, her friend from the Hamburg tax authorities asked whether the statute of limitations had expired. Daniela P. said yes – if nothing comes between them.

Political influence denied

A devilish plan? The course of the chat suggests that other departments of the Hamburg financial administration could have been involved – or at least knew about it: Your plan, the official continued, worked out with the friendly support of SI and to the great joy of 5. A smiley face tearing with laughter follows. SI designates a management function within the Hamburg financial administration. The 5, in turn, should stand for the "Amt 5" of the tax authority, i.e. the tax administration, which was directly under the then Finance Senator Peter Tschentscher, today's First Mayor of the Free and Hanseatic City.

The Ministry of Justice in North Rhine-Westphalia confirmed the research on request: "Chat traffic with the content you specified is known to the Ministry of Justice." However, the Cologne public prosecutor's office is responsible for evaluating the chat history. For their part, the prosecutors did not provide any information about the ongoing investigation.

Allegation of interference denied

Daniela P. told WDR that she would not comment on the text messages. In earlier witness interviews, she had testified that there had been no political interference. Those responsible for Office 5 and Peter Tschentscher said the same thing in the ongoing committee of inquiry. The latter described the suspicion of political influence as "completely unfounded". When asked, his Senate spokesman emphasized that the investigator who was now responsible for the Cologne public prosecutor's office had been involved.

The private bank MM Warburg announced in writing that it did not believe that the findings of the investigative committee had resulted in any undue influence.

Conversation with Olaf Scholz

But despite all the statements, the WhatsApp messages fit like pieces of a puzzle into the already known processes. Because initially it looked as if the tax officer P. and her superiors wanted to reclaim the money. This is what they wrote in a 29-page report to the tax authorities on October 5, 2016. Just a few weeks later, Daniela P. and her superiors waived the claim. What happened?

In any case, private banker Christian Olearius let his political wires glow in the Hanseatic city. None other than the then Mayor Olaf Scholz received Olearius and the bank's co-owner, Max Warburg, alone in his office on October 26, 2016. Scholz later told the investigative committee that he did not remember the contents of the six-eye meeting.

Olearius, on the other hand, had recorded his impressions in a diary. The leather-bound notebooks later fell into the hands of the Cologne investigators. The bankers presented Scholz with a letter at the meeting in which they set out their legal opinion. Scholz listened, asked questions, but didn't let it be known if he intended to do anything.

Letter to the Treasurer

On November 9, 2016, Olaf Scholz became active. The mayor apparently called Olearius, who documented it in his diary. It was about the writing. Scholz is said to have advised sending the letter directly to Finance Senator Peter Tschentscher. According to the diary, Olearius did not ask any questions, but – as recommended by Scholz – had the letter sent to the Senator for Finance at the time.

Scholz will later confirm that he has noted a phone call in his appointment calendar. He could no longer remember the content of the conversation. He vehemently denied any suspicion of influence. The letter actually went by messenger to Finance Senator Tschentscher on the same day "because of the importance of the process".

Claims barred?

Tschentscher, in turn, received Daniela P.'s boss, the head of the tax office for large companies, in his office two days later. According to the calendar entry, the conversation lasted 30 minutes. Whether it was about Cum-Ex and the Warburg Bank was not documented, the tax authorities later said. One thing is certain: Tschentscher forwarded the Olearius letter on November 14, 2016 to P. as the responsible tax officer. With his green ministerial ink, he noted a "request for information on the situation".

The decisive meeting took place on November 17, 2016. According to the calendar entry, Daniela P., her boss and other responsible persons from the tax authorities were present. Suddenly those responsible no longer demanded the money back. On the same day, Daniela P. wrote the WhatsApp message that had now surfaced as a result of the investigation, after which her devilish plan had worked. The tax office saw the claims from 2009, around 47 million euros, apparently as statute-barred for tax purposes.

More inconsistencies

In the meantime, the private bank paid back the entire cum-ex booty. The Bonn Regional Court sentenced the money house to do so in spring 2019. The verdict according to which MM Warburg participated in criminal cum-ex deals and has to pay back the money is final. The bank has said these days that its tax assessment of the cum-ex transactions has turned out to be wrong. The members of the Supervisory Board and the Management Board disapproved of illegal tax arrangements of any kind.

The Cologne public prosecutor will continue to investigate in Hamburg. In addition to the explosive chat, the investigators, according to information from WDR, have another suspicion. The search in the confiscated e-mail inboxes of some of those involved revealed such an emptiness that the investigators are investigating whether incriminating communication in the Hamburg tax authorities could have been deliberately deleted. While there were numerous appointments related to Cum-Ex in the Outlook calendars, there was hardly an email related to the tax scandal. This is another of many inconsistencies.

In Hamburg, meanwhile, the Cum-Ex investigative committee is trying to shed light on the matter. On August 19, the MPs questioned a prominent witness: Federal Chancellor Olaf Scholz.

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