German prosecutors have launched a formal probe into substantial campaign contributions from Switzerland to Alice Weidel, the co-leader of the populist Alternative for Germany’s parliamentary group in the Bundestag. The donations from a Swiss pharma company prior to the 2017 election may have violated party funding laws, the prosecutor’s office in Konstanz said on Tuesday.
The investigation also targets three members of Weidel's far-right party, which is also known as the AfD.
The move puts added pressure on Weidel after days of controversy following revelations that she and other AfD politicians received — and failed to disclose — hundreds of thousands of euros from foreign donors.
According to reports earlier this month, Weidel’s campaign office in the southern city of Konstanz received 18 donations from the Swiss firm totaling €132,000 ($150,600) in the summer of 2017. The politician said she had noticed the donation late and repaid the donation as required by law.
But Weidel’s answer failed to quell the controversy as further donations emerged in the days thereafter. The AfD said last week it had identified another suspicious €150,000 donation in February from an obscure Dutch foundation. The same institution, called “Europe Identity Foundation,” was behind an illegal €49,000 donation in 2016 to the North Rhine-Westphalia chapter of the AfD, it emerged.
The populist party said it returned both payments to the Dutch organization and defended its decision not disclose them to authorities since it didn’t keep the money.
However, party donations from EU countries must be reported to the Bundestag administration if they exceed €50,000. Furthermore, Germany's strict party spending laws ban campaign contributions from countries outside the European Union, which is the case of Switzerland. Parties that break that rule face a financial penalty of three times the amount received.
Weidel, a former Goldman Sachs banker, divides her time between the Lake Constance area and Switzerland, where she lives with her partner. She said she repaid the donation to the Swiss firm after having doubts about its legality. But media reported the repayment only took place in April 2018 and was incomplete. Her campaign team reportedly spent some of the money on social media advertising and legal fees.
The reports prompted other parties to call for a parliamentary inquiry into the AfD’s finances. “If the donation was illegal, Weidel should resign,” SPD lawmaker Johannes Kahrs told Handelsblatt.
Stones and glass houses
“These allegations lack any basis and are an attempt to discredit me personally and politically,” Weidel said last Friday. She went on to accuse the media of attempting to smear her with “incorrect, incomplete and biased” reporting.
After the Konstanz prosecutors launched their investigation into the donations, the AfD leader went on attack mode in the Bundestag on Wednesday in a plenary session initially dedicated to the budget and debating current policies. As leader of the opposition, however, Weidel opened the session with a broadside of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats. The center-right party was embroiled in an illegal party financing scandal in the 1990s which caused the downfall of former Chancellor Helmut Kohl.
“Those who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones,” Weidel said. “You want to talk about party donations. All right, so let's talk about slush funds and Helmut Kohl's kickbacks.” She added that her campaign team in Konstanz made an honest mistake since it’s made up of volunteers and the whole thing was a scandal manufactured by the media.
When Merkel’s turn to speak came, she chose not to allow the session to further stray off-topic. Instead, she remarked drily, “Everyone gets to talk about what they think is important for the country.”
Jean-Michel Hauteville is an editor with Handelsblatt Global in Berlin. To reach the author: [email protected]