Austrian far-right party must repay funds: court
VIENNA (Reuters) - Austria's far-right BZO party must repay nearly 1 million euros ($1.33 million) it got in illicit financing from Telekom Austria officials, a Vienna court ruled while convicting four people in the influence-peddling case.
The court cleared Telekom Austria ex-deputy chief executive Rudolf Fischer of wrongdoing, saying he had authorized payments but did not deliberately take part in the scheme, the Austria Press Agency reported.
But a former lobbyist for the company, two BZO officials and an advertising agency employee were sentenced to up to two-and-a-half years for their roles.
The verdict early on Saturday came in the fourth in a slew of corruption investigations concerning Telekom Austria, which local media have dubbed the "political ATM".
Corruption remains rife in Austrian public life, where many deals are done on the back of friendships and favors, although a new generation of prosecutors and politicians in the Alpine republic is trying to change this culture.
The defendants in this Telekom Austria case were charged with various combinations of breach of trust, money-laundering and falsifying testimony to a parliamentary committee. No current company official were involved.
Prosecutors said the company made 960,000 euros in payments, which appeared in accounts as fees for reports but in fact were channeled via ad agencies to Joerg Haider's BZO party, then part of a coalition government, to help finance its 2006 election campaign.
A BZO minister then amended a law that relieved telecoms operators of having to provide universal access to "0800" freephone numbers, saving the former state monopoly Telekom Austria an estimated 10 million euros.
The BZO has shrunk to a shadow of its former self since the death of Haider, a charismatic firebrand, in a car crash in 2008. Opinion polls suggest it may not get enough support to return to parliament in a national election on September 29
It has lodged an appeal against being forced to relinquish the money, which it has put in escrow, APA reported.
Telekom Austria was privatized in 2000 but is still 28 percent state-owned. A new major shareholder, Carlos Slim's America Movil, with 23 percent of the company, came onto the scene last year.
Fischer was convicted in two earlier trials of covertly channeling money to another political party and of share price manipulation.
($1 = 0.7542 euros)
(Reporting by Michael Shields; Editing by Alison Williams)
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