* Merkel cabinet minister gave SPD advance warning of probe
* SPD lawmaker Edathy has denied child porn allegations
* Departure could aggravate tensions in coalition
(Adds comments from Gabriel)
By Erik Kirschbaum
BERLIN, Feb 14 A senior German minister resigned
on Friday amid accusations he leaked confidential information
about a fellow lawmaker suspected of possessing child
pornography, dealing a blow to Chancellor Angela Merkel and her
two-month old government.
The resignation of Agriculture Minister Hans-Peter
Friedrich, the latest in a series of cabinet departures under
Merkel, could aggravate tensions in Berlin's new "grand
coalition" at a time when it is trying to push through complex
reforms of pensions and renewable energy.
"The pressure on me has grown so much in the last couple of
hours that I no longer think I can do the job in the agriculture
ministry with the required concentration, calm and political
support," Friedrich told a hastily-called news conference.
Merkel said she had accepted Friedrich's resignation "with
great respect and great regret", adding that it was too early to
discuss who would succeed him.
The resignation follows questions about whether Friedrich, a
member of Merkel's Bavarian sister party, inappropriately passed
on confidential information about a looming investigation into a
prominent Social Democrat (SPD) lawmaker to the leader of the
Friedrich was interior minister in the previous centre-right
government at the time.
It emerged this week that the SPD lawmaker, Sebastian
Edathy, is being investigated by prosecutors, who suspect him of
possessing child pornography, an accusation Edathy has
The 44-year-old Edathy, well known in Germany for leading a
2012-13 inquiry into neo-Nazi killings, resigned from parliament
last week, citing health reasons, and has threatened to sue the
newspaper that first reported about the child porn suspicions
earlier this week.
WHO TIPPED OFF EDATHY?
What started as a small domestic affair erupted into a major
political scandal on Thursday when it emerged that Friedrich had
informed SPD chairman Sigmar Gabriel in October that Edathy
could become the target of an investigation.
Gabriel then passed that on to two other senior members of
his party -- Frank-Walter Steinmeier, now foreign minister, and
Thomas Oppermann, who leads the SPD in parliament.
Prosecutors in Hanover, who are investigating Edathy, have
complained that the leaking may have compromised their case.
Edathy appears to have been given advance warning of the
investigation, Hanover prosecutor Joerg Froehlich told a news
conference on Friday.
As a result, German media have reported, relevant
information on Edathy's computers may have been destroyed.
It is still unclear who tipped off Edathy. If it emerged
that he was alerted by a senior SPD member, it could cause even
greater upheaval in Merkel's coalition.
"This was turbo crisis management by Merkel," said Tom
Jaeger, a political scientist at the University of Cologne.
"She's trying to keep the issue out of the public because no
one knows what might come out of this. There are top people in
the coalition like Gabriel and Oppermann involved."
The big outstanding question is how Edathy was tipped off.
Speaking on German public broadcaster ARD, Gabriel - now
Germany's Economy Minister - said neither he nor Steinmeier nor
Oppermann had informed Edathy. Gabriel told mass-selling
newspaper Bild he therefore ruled out personnel consequences in
Gabriel defended Friedrich on ARD, saying the former
interior minister had used his discretion at a time when
personnel decisions were pending in the SPD.
"He tried to avert damage and looking at it now, he
succeeded in doing that," Gabriel said.
Friedrich has said he believes he acted in accordance with
the law by informing the SPD, which was in coalition talks with
Merkel's conservatives at the time and may have been considering
giving Edathy a senior post in the new government.
Friedrich's resignation is the latest in a string of
departures of top conservative ministers under Merkel since she
took power in 2005.
Education Minister Annette Schavan, a close friend and ally
of the chancellor, was forced out last year over allegations of
plagiarism, two years after Defence Minister Karl-Theodor zu
Guttenberg left for the same reasons.
Environment Minister Norbert Roettgen was fired in 2012 for
bungling an important regional election for the conservatives.
Franz Josef Jung, a former defence and labour minister, left in
2009 over his handling of a deadly air strike in Afghanistan.
(Additional reporting by Thorsten Severin, Gernot Heller,
Stephen Brown, Noah Barkin and Michelle Martin; Editing by Noah
Barkin and Ralph Boulton)