German minister quits over football club scandal

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The Independent Online

A scandal featuring a Catholic bishop, a health charity and a struggling football club toppled Germany's Transport Minister yesterday, covering the Chancellor, Gerhard Schröder, in blushes and giving the opposition a brief respite from its own financial woes.

A scandal featuring a Catholic bishop, a health charity and a struggling football club toppled Germany's Transport Minister yesterday, covering the Chancellor, Gerhard Schröder, in blushes and giving the opposition a brief respite from its own financial woes.

Reinhard Klimmt quit after just over a year in the job, as the Social Democrats said he was damaging the government's clean image. Mr Klimmt, a Saarlander and former protégé of "Red" Oskar Lafontaine, had been fined for abetting fraud in his home region.

The affair goes back to 1996. The local football club, FC Saarbrücken was in dire straits after another poor season in the Bundesliga's second division. Mr Klimmt, an ardent fan, was the president of the regional capital's favourite team. He was also the head of the Social Democrat group in the regional parliament, while his mentor, Mr Lafontaine, was Saarland's Prime Minister.

The club needed money, but the regional government was not allowed to help. Meanwhile, the Catholic charity Caritas was being threatened with hospital closures.

The solution seemed clear. If Caritas could be persuaded to inject cash into FC Saarbrücken, perhaps the Saarbrücken government might be prepared to remove the axe.

But Caritas could not be seen to be channelling money into a football club, so a camouflage was needed, A bogus contract was signed that billed the charity for DM620,000. No services were rendered.

Caritas felt the investment was worthwhile. Its purpose, said Hans-Joaqchim Doerfert, the business manager of Caritas in Trier, was "cultivation of the political landscape".

Mr Doerfert is on trial for the embezzlement of DM20m from the charity, which runs 42 hospitals and homes. His employer, Bishop Hermann Josef Spital, said he was hoodwinked by his business manager and realised when it was too late. "I am sorry that things have turned out this way," the bishop said yesterday.

Mr Klimmt is also sorry now. Initially he felt no urge to resign from the federal government over a local problem in Saarbrücken; he thought that by paying the fine he could settle his debt to society and the matter would be closed.

"The activities relate to my period as president of FC Saarbrücken and do not affect my position... as Transport Minister," he said on Monday.

Payment of the fine was seen as an admission of guilt. The opposition was outraged, as were Green-coalition allies and Mr Klimmt's party colleagues. "A Green minister would have resigned," fumed Renate Künast, the Greens' co-chairwoman. Similar views were expressed by Volker Neumann, head of the parliamentary committee investigating the former chancellor Helmut Kohl's creative accounting.

Mr Klimmt did not pay the fine after all, but it was too late. On Wednesday he was summoned to the chancellery and told he was distracting attention from Christian Democrat sleaze. Yesterday. the Social Democrat parliamentary group held an emergency meeting and told the Transport Minister to get on his bike.

After the stunning resignation of Mr Lafontaine, Mr Klimmt is the second Saarlander to vanish under a cloud. Kurt Bodewig, a trade union official, will replace him.

Swift action by Mr Schröder has probably limited the damage. With Mr Klimmt gone, the Christian Democrats may quieten down, especially as one of the signatories of the bogus contract with Caritas is Klaus Meiser, FC Saarbrücken's deputy president, who is also the Christian Democrat interior minister in Saarland and is still under investigation.

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