Thyssen bosses arrested over pounds 30m metals fraud

German steel scandal: Executives granted pounds 1m bail after police swoop in Dusseldorf

The chairman of Thyssen, Dieter Vogel, and nine other senior executives at the German steel giant have been arrested in a series of police raids linked to pounds 30m fraud over an east German metals trading company.

Detectives searched the homes of several of the arrested men, including Mr Vogel, together with Thyssen's head office in Dusseldorf, for evidence linked to the alleged fraud. Other offices throughout Germany were sealed by police officers and will be searched later.

By late last night, nine of the arrested men, including Mr Vogel, had been released on bail of up to pounds 1m. Mr Vogel appeared briefly before a court in Dusseldorf, where charges were read out.

Shares in Thyssen fell by more than 2 per cent to DM262.2 on the Frankfurt exchange on news of the arrests.

They follow an investigation into Metallurgiehandel, an eastern German metals company bought by Thyssen after German reunification in 1990.

Prosecutors allege both that managers at Thyssen took DM37.8m (pounds 15m) from Metallurgiehandel when it was sold and that a further DM32.2m of damages was caused by manipulating the company's accounts.

Among the other arrests are former Thyssen chairman Heinrich Kersten, and directors Josef von Riedere and Hans Ulrich Gruber.

Berlin prosecutors have been investigating whether Thyssen defrauded the Treuhand privatisation agency in charge of privatising eastern German enterprises.

A separate investigation was launched in 1993 and shelved after Thyssen paid compensation worth pounds 35m to Treuhand.

Analysts yesterday said the arrests were a fall-out from the kind of free-wheeling deal typical in the heady days just after German reunification in 1990.

The case is similar to that of Bremer Vulkan, the biggest German shipbuilder. Bremer Vulkan sank after allegedly covering losses at its Western operations by siphoning off public subsidies earmarked to refurbish its eastern German wharves.

The giant steel-maker said in a statement: "The action of the state prosecutor is incomprehensible. There have been no new facts or evidence since the case was suspended in October 1993."

The company said the arrests had allegedly been made to ensure the managers concerned could not flee the country: "But the fact that most of those concerned interrupted their holidays to make themselves available for questioning means that the fears are absurd." Thyssen added that it would fight the charges with all legal means at its disposal.

The company was indirectly backed by Treuhand, which it allegedly defrauded. A spokesman said: "The case is effectively closed for us."

In 1990, as the Treuhand strove to maintain jobs while selling off state- run enterprises in the formerly communist east, it acted hastily to strike deals with buyers in the interest of protecting jobs.

Treuhand contacted Thyssen in December 1990 to break up Metallurgiehandel, the eastern German state monopoly that controlled foreign trade of metal products.

Like shipbuilder Bremer Vulkan, but on a much smaller scale, Thyssen may have gone too far in trying to squeeze the best deal out of its acquisition of Metallurgiehandel.

"Everybody was trying to shelter themselves from losses," said Olaf Toelke, an analyst at Merrill Lynch.

"They paid little for companies, sometimes only a token price of one mark, but they guaranteed employment."

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