| VIENNA, June 14
VIENNA, June 14 Suspicions of bribery at
Austria's central bank have dragged it into a nationwide
crackdown on corruption that has shaken confidence in the
country's highest ranks of power and prestige.
Vienna prosecutors this week charged nine people, including
the deputy governor of the Austrian National Bank, over
suspected bribes and kickbacks for banknote contracts with
Azerbaijan and Syria.
Wolfgang Duchatczek, 63 and set to retire next month, has
denied any wrongdoing, insisting through his lawyer that he was
in fact the person who exposed the scandal at a banknote
printing unit of which he is chairman.
But the headline-making charges add the central bank to a
parade of court cases and investigations into the interplay of
money and power in the wealthy Alpine republic.
One regulatory official called the indictments "very
embarrassing" for an institution that shares responsibility for
overseeing the country's financial sector.
The European Central Bank, poised to take over
responsibility for banking supervision in the euro zone next
year, declined to comment.
Egged on by a new generation of campaigning journalists,
Austrian courts and prosecutors are taking an increasingly tough
line on corruption.
Former Interior Minister and European lawmaker Ernst
Strasser got a four-year term for bribery in January after being
caught on camera offering to amend European legislation for
cash. He is appealing against the verdict.
Three former Telekom Austria managers were
sentenced to jail in February for share-price manipulation in a
case that had one defence lawyer bemoan his client was victim of
a changing culture in Austria, where business has traditionally
been done on the basis of friendships and favours.
"What in the past was considered business on the basis of
good relationships is corruption today," the lawyer said.
But it is a campaign driven by increasing public unrest.
Eight out of 10 Austrians surveyed in a European Union
Eurobarometer poll published last year said corruption was a
major problem, up from 61 percent in 2009.
Austria fell to 25th place out of 176 on Transparency
International's latest corruption perception index last year,
from 16th a year earlier and 10th in 2005.
A parliamentary investigative panel made headlines last
year by grilling officials, lobbyists and business executives
about suspected dirty deals.
It looked into payoffs and perks financed by Telekom
Austria, an ex-monopoly still partially state-owned; into
whether kickbacks flowed in the 2004 privatisation of public
housing; and examined the award of emergency service radio
network contracts, among other cases.
Telekom Austria is trying to claw back tens of millions of
euros from people it suspects of defrauding the company.
The parliamentary panel's work helped prompt parliament to
adopt a sweeping ethics package a year ago that sheds more light
on politicians' finances, hoping to draw a line under the
Austria is a relatively small country of 8.4 million, and
all the major players in business and politics are based in the
capital Vienna, where "everyone knows everyone" is a watchword
for close ties among movers and shakers.