Kohl threatened with jail for failing to name secret donors

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GERMANY'S VENERABLE ex-chancellor slipped deeper into disgrace yesterday as the Justice Minister accused him of breaking the law and politicians warned he could go to prison for refusing to name his secret donors.

Helmut Kohl spent much of the day answering questions from the auditing firm Ernst & Young, which had been hired by the Christian Democrats in an effort to clear up his mysterious party financing system during his 16-year reign. His answers were eagerly awaited by the leadership of the party, whose own written questionnaire sent to Mr Kohl remained blank.

He has so far admitted accepting up to DM2m from companies and individuals who, Mr Kohl says, had sworn him to secrecy. The government says that this violated Germany's constitution.

"Kohl knowingly broke the law for years while in office - that's bad enough," Herta Daubler-Gmelin, the Justice Minister, said yesterday. "What is worse is that nowhere near everything has come out," she complained. "These bit-by-bit confessions damage not only Kohl's credibility, but also that of his party and our democratic system."

Mr Kohl's party, still waiting for the simplest answers, concurred. "I think everybody who holds the fate of the CDU close to his heart should endeavour to bring it out of its present difficult situation," said Angela Merkel, the party's general secretary. "A lot of things would be clearer if we knew more about the origin of donations."

But her former mentor says he cannot mention names, because he gave the secret donors his word that he would not. That in turn has provoked threats from Social Democrat politicians that the former chancellor may suffer the indignity of being fined or detained unless he identifies all his benefactors, as required by law.

These affairs are beginning to look minor compared with allegations Mr Kohl faces over the privatisation of the East German refinery Leuna in 1992. According to press reports and a go-between, the French company Elf Aquitaine secretly paid some DM80m to German and French politicians.

The latest twist in this long-running saga is that many of the files of the Leuna privatisation have gone missing, according to Uwe-Karsten Heye, the government's spokesman.

Plans to name the party's new Berlin headquarters "Helmut Kohl House" have been discreetly shelved. It is not even clear the new offices will ever open under the CDU banner, because the party faces penury and fines of DM40m for its illegal financial practices.