Defiant And Dismissive

When Helmut Kohl finally testified last Thursday before the Bundestag about his role in Germany's biggest postwar political scandal, his performance was, well, vintage Kohl. The former chancellor was asked all the tough questions: who gave 2 million marks in secret campaign donations to his party, the Christian Democratic Union? Why did lobbyists and businesses deposit millions more in the coffers of the CDU shortly after closing deals with Kohl's government? And why did official records of these deals disappear shortly before Kohl left office in 1998? Rather than clearing up the mystery, the 70-year-old ex-chancellor lashed out at his questioners. "This panel... only has the goal of defaming 16 years of government under Helmut Kohl," he fumed. As to the charges, they were nothing but "absurd."

Despite his defiance, Kohl's woes keep growing. Since the Spendenaffre (Donation Affair) first shocked Germany last November, CDU officials have had to admit that Kohl and his associates ran a secret network of slush funds fed by millions in undeclared--and therefore illegal--campaign contributions. Kohl himself admits to taking in 2 million euro in cash from donors he refuses to identify, saying he promised them anonymity on his "word of honor." In January prosecutors began investigating Kohl for possible breach of trust, a criminal charge. CDU leaders forced him to quit his honorary party chairmanship. Now the Bundestag is investigating whether donations to the CDU bought favors from the Kohl government.

Nothing has been proven, but investigators are looking into a number of suspicious cases. In early 1991 Kohl's cabinet approved Saudi Arabia's controversial request to buy 36 armored vehicles. Soon after, a German arms dealer who had been lobbying heavily for the sale made a 500,000 euro contribution to the CDU. Then in 1994, following the government sale of an east German refinery to Elf Aquitaine, the French oil giant donated 15 million euro to Kohl's party. And in 1997 a Hamburg developer bought state-owned real estate at half a billion euros below market price, then donated 1.75 million euro to the CDU.

In all three cases, the government records have vanished. Just a day before Kohl's testimony last week, chief investigator Burkhard Hirsch charged that two thirds of the chancellery's records were illegally destroyed days before Kohl left office in 1998. "This was a massive annihilation of data... clearly directed from a centralized position inside the chancellery," said Hirsch. Was Kohl involved? He insisted that he knew of no order to destroy files.

Kohl has refused to cooperate, and recently compared his treatment by his accusers to the persecution of Jews by the Nazis. Many Germans now think his self-righteousness is a scandal in itself. Next, Hirsch will send his report on the missing files to a prosecutor for possible criminal charges. The probe could drag on for years. Even some CDU members are urging Kohl to give up his Bundestag seat, and with it his immunity from jail if prosecuted. Meanwhile, investigators have discovered backup disks on which they hope to find the deleted chancellery files--and a smoking gun.