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Schroeder Fires His Defense Minister

Germany: Rudolf Scharping's dismissal follows reports that he had accepted questionable funds.

July 19, 2002|CAROL J. WILLIAMS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BERLIN — Angered by yet another scandal in his Cabinet just two months before federal elections, Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder sacked his defense minister Thursday after German media revealed that the official had accepted more than $72,000 in questionable payments from a public relations firm.

It was one embarrassment too many for Schroeder involving Rudolf Scharping, who only escaped termination 10 months ago because the events of Sept. 11 distracted attention from a previous controversy that had prompted calls for his dismissal.

Dubbed "Randy Rudi" for his courtship of Countess Kristina Pilati, Scharping was under fire last summer for using government aircraft to visit her on the Spanish island of Majorca while German soldiers were preparing for hazardous duty in the Balkans.

But the swift removal of Scharping this time might backfire politically. Although the defense minister has long been on the outs with the chancellor's center-left government, he is the eighth minister to be fired during Schroeder's nearly four years in office.

"Today has shown that the federal government is disintegrating," Schroeder's conservative challenger for national leadership, Bavarian Gov. Edmund Stoiber, told journalists. "The fight between the chancellor and the defense minister also shows the chancellor's rapidly disappearing authority."

Just two days earlier, Schroeder brought enough pressure to bear on the board of Deutsche Telekom to force the departure of chief executive Ron Sommer--a move reproached by business leaders as state intrusion on the private sector. Because the German government is the largest Telekom shareholder, with 43% of the privatized company's stock, its behind-the-scenes push for a change at the top was heeded by the board but has failed to do much for the stock's value, which has fallen 90% from its March 2000 peak.

Following other strategic gaffes, such as a court case Schroeder filed over allegations that he dyes his hair, the chancellor's eleventh-hour action to jettison Scharping could add to a mounting impression that the opposition has him on the run.

Scharping's latest troubles began with the disclosure Monday by two German newspapers that he had opened a special bank account two days before the September 1998 elections into which the firm of Moritz Hunzinger had since deposited $72,100.

The minister defended the payments as an advance for his as-yet-unwritten memoirs and for speeches sponsored by the firm before his government appointment. German officials are prohibited from accepting compensation aside from their state salaries.

Wednesday's issue of the weekly Stern magazine reported that Hunzinger also represents at least one major defense contractor, suggesting that the firm's relationship with Scharping may have provided a cover for social occasions in which weapons manufacturers could privately peddle their wares to the minister.

Hunzinger has denied that any conflict of interest occurred.

And Scharping, who called a news conference after the chancellor's announcement of his dismissal, insisted that there was neither legal nor moral wrongdoing.

"I am leaving this office with my head held high and my back straight," he told journalists before departing the Defense Ministry podium without taking questions. He also accused Stern of making claims that were "false and deliberately defamatory."

Scharping was quoted in the Monday articles as saying the payments from Hunzinger had been duly reported and all relevant taxes paid to the government.

A former Social Democratic Party chief and unsuccessful challenger to Helmut Kohl for the chancellery in 1994, Scharping has long been unpopular with German media for his aloof demeanor and clumsy attempts at polishing his dullard image.

The most obvious misfire occurred last summer when Scharping allowed the glossy Bunte magazine to photograph himself and Pilati splashing and nuzzling in Majorca, as if they were among the vacationing celebrities usually dogged by Europe's paparazzi. Reports this week that Scharping spent more than $27,000 at a Frankfurt haberdashery in a single day in 1999 have added to his reputation for misjudgments.

Schroeder, whose Social Democrats and partners in the Greens party are trailing Stoiber's conservatives in all polls ahead of the Sept. 22 elections, said he was asking President Johannes Rau to endorse Scharping's dismissal.

In a terse public statement, a beleaguered-looking Schroeder said the defense minister was being replaced because he no longer had the confidence of his own party.

The chancellor said his party's parliamentary floor leader, Peter Struck, would replace the 54-year-old Scharping as defense minister for the remaining weeks of the government's term.

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