Austrian leader Sebastian Kurz investigated by corruption inquiry

Austria's Chancellor Sebastian Kurz speaks at a doorstep prior to a cabinet meeting at the Chancellery in Vienna on May 12, 2021
Sebastian Kurz said on Wednesday he had always tried to tell the truth to MPs and denied wrongdoing

Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz has said he is being investigated by anti-corruption prosecutors over allegations that he made false statements to a parliamentary commission.

MPs have been investigating claims of nepotism, including the appointment of party loyalist Thomas Schmid as head of Austria’s state holding company. WhatsApp messages on Mr Schmid’s phone suggest Mr Kurz may have more to answer than previously known. Mr Kurz denies wrongdoing.

He said on Wednesday he had “always tried” to tell the commission the truth and he would not resign as chancellor, and he would be happy to be questioned by a judge. He said his head of staff, Bernhard Bonelli, was also under investigation. Opposition parties accuse Mr Kurz, the head of the conservative ÖVP People’s Party, of giving false answers to MPs.

The decision by Austria’s economic crime and corruption prosecutor to open an inquiry follows a series of events that have hit Mr Kurz’s government in the past two years. In May 2019, his coalition collapsed when the far-right Freedom Party became embroiled in a political scandal surrounding a secret video dubbed Ibizagate. That scandal is also being investigated by the commission of MPs.

Mr Kurz, 34, returned to power in early 2020 in a coalition with the Greens, but in February 2021 the home of close ally and finance minister Gernot Blümel was raided by prosecutors in an investigation into illegal party funding involving a gambling company. The latest investigation involves the 2019 appointment of Mr Schmid as head of Öbag, a state-run holding company that oversees 11 companies either partially or fully owned by Austria.

The chancellor denied under oath to MPs in June 2020 that he had had any influence in Mr Schmid being given the highly paid role. He told the commission that while he considered Mr Schmid well qualified it was a decision made by Öbag’s board of directors and he had no recollection of backing him for the job.

Text exchanges found on Mr Schmid’s phone have since emerged of the chancellor saying: “You get everything you want, anyway” and Mr Schmid responding: “I’m so happy :-))) I love my chancellor”.

Lying under oath to MPs carries a possible jail sentence of three years but Mr Kurz said he was confident the allegations would not amount to anything. The mood in the commission hearings had been “heated”, he said, and people were being “pushed into making false statements”.

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