As the probe into ties between top Austrian officials and local gaming interests approaches its second year, chancellor Sebastian Kurz assures that the details currently being leaked by prosecutors are false – and requests the opportunity to prove it.
False details in the probe into Austria’s so-called ‘Casinos Affair’ are being deliberately leaked by partisan prosecutors – the country’s chancellor has said – who is now preparing to provide proof in the protracted case.
The statement from Sebastian Kurz comes as the 18-month anti-corruption investigation envelops another top politician, this time the Minister of Finance, Gernot Blumel (a close ally of Kurz) whose house was raised by police in February.
The task force explained the raid was carried out under “the suspicion that a responsible person of a gambling company offered donations to a political party in return for the support of officials of the Republic of Austria in the case of a tax claim abroad threatening the company.”
Blumel told the media he was glad that the accusations were now known to him, “so they can be cleared up in a few words: I would never have, and have never, accepted donations from gambling companies,” he said. “Especially not if there was also a quid pro quo involved.”
The accusations of monetary relationships between the Austrian’s People’s Party and local gambling companies first emerged in 2019 when Heinz-Christian Strache, then vice-chancellor of Austria and leader of the country’s right-wing populist Freedom Party, was caught on camera appearing to offer government contracts to journalists posing as Russian oligarchs.
Since then further accusations have been made of dealings between top politicians and specifically members of the Austrian gaming group, Novomatic.
“Novomatic has never made any donation to any political party,” a spokesperson for the group confirmed. “Of course, we are cooperating with the authorities so that these incorrect allegations can be clarified quickly.”
Outside observers in the The Council of Europe have denounced Austria’s efforts in tackling the scandal, describing them as “globally unsatisfactory” amounting to a “persistent lack of progress”.
Yet the country’s chancellor, Kurz, maintains that the media is being briefed untowardly by factional interests within the justice department, to sway opinion ahead of formal trial proceedings.
“I am of the opinion that investigations should be conducted independently by the judiciary and I would therefore never interfere publicly in any proceedings,” he wrote. “However .[…] Incorrect facts and incorrect assumptions from your files that are made public not only cause reputational damage […] for the individuals concerned, but also lead to reputational damage, especially abroad, for the Federal Government and thus for the entire Republic of Austria.”
One of the core allegations being leaked is from calendar entries seized by police from Novomatic employees, which showed Novomatic owner, Johann Graf, meeting with a “Kurz” in July 2017. However, Kurz (the chancellor) says that name refers to a former supervisory board member at Novomatic, Martina Kurz.
Kurz is also alleged to have met with Novomatic CEO, Harald Neumann in September 2017 – but which could not have happened because Kurz was at that time taking part in a televised debate. “It can be determined by a simple Google search,” he wrote. Yet the reports were leaked to the media regardless.
Questions remain over the independence and motives of the WKStA – the special Austrian judicial agency responsible for investigating corruption. Kurz himself is said to suspect them of engaging in a witch-hunt against him, and has attempted to have the group replaced by a new Federal prosecutor’s office. This would require a constitutional amendment, but it is actually possible that such a reform would find favour across the political spectrum.
Traditionally Kurz’s party has been an obstacle to creating a centralized prosecutor’s office, separate from the ministry of justice. But the current agency, WKStA, has been attracting critics in recent years – not least for authorising a raid on the office’s of its own intelligence agency in 2018 – which decimated its relationship with key European allies in the field.