German prosecutors, who searched Berlin’s finance ministry last week, investigating alleged irregularities at the federal anti-money-laundering agency, are now facing scrutiny over their actions and motives.
A week before Germany’s federal election, the state prosecutor, who ordered the raid, stands accused of a politicised campaign against Olaf Scholz, federal finance minister and lead candidate for the Social Democratic Party (SPD), which is topping election polls.
On Thursday of last week, just before 10am, three plain-clothes officers and two state prosecutors from the western city of Osnabrück arrived at the Wilhelmstrasse ministry. They wanted to see files relating to the Financial Intelligence Unit (FIU), part of German customs, which is overseen by the finance ministry.
Prosecutors say they were hindered from accessing files by officials at the finance and justice ministries; the two ministries dispute this and say that, before handing over the files requested, they asked for the file request in writing, which never arrived.
What sounds like an everyday bureaucratic row has blown up into a full-scale political scandal between the centre-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU), which is trailing in the election campaign, and the SPD.
Choosing his words carefully last week, Mr Scholz said the request for files could have been made in writing and that “everyone can interpret for themselves” the approach taken.
Three days later during a weekend television debate, however, CDU leader Armin Laschet framed the raid as the latest example of sloppiness from Mr Scholz as finance minister. CDU campaign spokesman on finance Friedrich Merz suggested that “people are beginning to think about whether Olaf Scholz is really the right chancellor for Germany”.
Mr Scholz has accused the CDU of distorting the facts of the case while SPD general secretary Lars Klingbeil accused Mr Laschet and his party of “deliberately bending the truth and spreading targeted lies to harm Mr Scholz personally”.
“They are so panicked by the loss of power that. . . the CDU are leading one of the nastiest campaigns in decades,” said Mr Klingbeil.
Joining the SPD fightback, a close Scholz aide posted online documents that, he suggested, prove that this was a political smear campaign.
A press release issued by the Osnabrück prosecutor said the Berlin search was to establish “whether ministry management” were “involved” in illegal activity – in this case, dropping money-laundering investigations after preliminary probes.
According to the court order justifying the raid, which the Scholz aide posted to Twitter, the focus of the search was on “third persons” at the FIU – which is based in Cologne – and not anyone at the Berlin finance ministry.
Escalating the row further, SPD officials have come under fire for suggesting the raids were masterminded by the Osnabrück chief prosecutor and Lower Saxony state justice minister, both CDU members.
The Osnabrück prosecutors dismiss any claims of political partisanship and have threatened the Scholz aide with legal proceedings of his own for posting confidential court documents online .
As the poll gap closes between the SPD and the CDU, it’s likely that last week’s prosecutor raid will preoccupy German state prosecutors long after next weekend’s election.