Austrian minister's husband goes to ground

Allegations surrounding arms contract bring resignations from governmen t. Steve Crawshaw in Vienna reports `We have said all that needs to be said. That is policy now'

The Austrian government coalition was reeling yesterday in the wake of the allegations of a bribery plot involving British Aerospace.

Peter Marizzi, one of the most important figures in the Social Democratic Party, was given "indefinite leave". Twenty-four hours earlier, the other politician recorded on the "bribes" tape, Hermann Kraft, the People's Party defence spokesman, resigned.

Chancellor Franz Vranitzky, the Socialist Party leader, yesterday offered Mr Marizzi only lukewarm support, saying "conversations will take place".

Meanwhile, pressure looks set to grow on the environment minister Maria Rauch-Kallat, whose husband Count Alfons Mensdorff, is named in the transcript as the alleged contact with BAe.

The count is described by Mr. Kraft in the recording as "a representative or consultant" to British Aerospace.

In a statement, Count Mensdorff denied having had contacts with Mr Kraft. He said he was in any case not in a position to offer special deals, because he is "only an adviser" to BAe.

Yesterday, all calls to the count were referred to his lawyer, Thomas Mondl, who in turn was unwilling to be drawn. In an interview on Austrian radio, Mr Mondl said that his client "has a contract" with BAe and is "a kind of representative".

"In case of doubt", the lawyer added, this could be considered a paid contract.

Mr Mondl told the Independent that, apart from the brief radio interview, he could not answer any questions because that would be "in conflict of interest with my client". He said: "We have said everything that needs to be said. This is policy at the moment".

Count Mensdorff runs a consulting agency known as MPA - which according to the Austrian magazine News, has BAe as one of its clients.

Like hundreds of other "advisers" to manufacturers of high technology equipment, the count's value to BAe - if he has any - will be in his ability to use contacts to secure deals.

Generally, the middleman receives anything from 1-10 per cent in commissions. He has several functions: bringing buyers and sellers together; using his local knowledge and contacts; and arranging specialised training, services and aftercare once the goods are delivered; There was speculation last night that Mr Marizzi, who said he was interested in doing a "Sherlock Holmes", may himself have recorded the conversation. One of Austria's daily newspapers said he "fell into his own trap".

Count Mensdorff, 40, married Ms. Rauch-Kallat last April last year - just two months after the eavesdropped conversation.

The couple's weekend home, is a large manor house in Count Mensdorff's native Burgenland, south of Vienna. The house, which is said to be undergoing extensive renovation, has 200 hectares of land which is used for commercial forestry.

Count Mensdorff is said to have an an income of 2.5m schillings a year (£156,000) from forestry and shooting on the estate. His previous ventures include turkey farming and producing boar pate, both of which failed.

News noted that the Austrian government had wanted to buy a BAe-146 aircraft five years ago, but that the Asch400m deal did not come to fruition because of an emerging scandal involving the payment of commission.

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