* Steinbrueck denies selling out with speaker's fees
* SPD challenger lists details of extra income
* Says he spoke his mind to bankers at speaking events
By Erik Kirschbaum
BERLIN, Oct 30 Chancellor Angela Merkel's
designated challenger in next year's federal election angrily
rejected accusations on Tuesday that he sold out to bankers with
lucrative speaking engagements and neglected his duties as a
member of parliament by moonlighting.
Former Finance Minister Peer Steinbrueck, who will lead the
centre-left Social Democrats (SPD) into the 2013 election, told
a national TV audience he had earned 1.25 million euros for 89
speeches since 2009 but said he donated some money to charity.
The extra income, which might not even raise an eyebrow in
countries such as the United States where lucrative fees for
sought-after speakers are common, has stirred a sharp debate in
Germany, where the average 7,300 euros net per speech
Steinbrueck earned is three times most workers' monthly pay.
"It's an absurd accusation that I've somehow become
dependent on those who invited me for these speeches,"
Steinbrueck said tersely, a reference to the high number of
banks and financial industry groups that invited him.
"These accusations are groundless," he added, appearing
deeply uncomfortable during a 25-minute news conference.
"They're dim-witted. I actually used these appearances to read
the riot act to these financial institutions."
Steinbrueck, whose party trails Merkel's conservatives by
about 10 percentage points in opinion polls, was already facing
an uphill fight to oust the chancellor. But the fees row has
cast a shadow over a campaign that has only just begun.
Steinbrueck, 65, has faced a slew of criticism from Merkel's
centre-right coalition but also from the SPD's left wing and
from anti-graft campaigners for the speaker's fees, even though
he had not violated any German disclosure rules.
Steinbrueck sought to turn the tables on his critics by
releasing details of his income that went far beyond those
reporting rules and calling upon the ruling centre-right parties
to follow suit. Some conservative lawmakers staunchly oppose
stricter reporting rules on supplementary income.
"I'd like to set an example for other parties," Steinbrueck
said. "To some of those out there who tried to throw a stone at
my head with accusations of lacking transparency, I'd like to
turn that stone into a boomerang now and throw it back at them."
Steinbrueck's blunt language and gruff style made him a
popular after-dinner speaker in the three years since the SPD
lost the 2009 election. At the news conference on Tuesday, he
pointed out sportsmen and entertainers earn even larger sums.
An outspoken critic of Swiss banking secrecy, as finance
minister Steinbrueck threatened to send in the German cavalry to
hunt down Germans evading tax by hiding assets in Switzerland.
In Tuesday's news briefing, Steinbrueck said his
after-dinner speeches had allowed him to meet people outside the
SPD's usual constituency, and said he enjoyed telling bankers
things they did not want to hear.
He said he had only missed seven votes in parliament during
three years of heavy speaking engagements and made 250 unpaid
appearances in his election district in North Rhine-Westphalia.
Steinbrueck, who was nominated by the SPD on Sept. 28
, said until recently he had never dreamed of
being the SPD's chancellor candidate and had been content to be
a quiet backbencher in parliament in the twilight of his career.
"Many of these speeches were delivered at a point in time
when neither I nor the SPD could have imagined that I'd be
climbing back into the ring," said Steinbrueck.
(Editing by Gareth Jones and Jon Boyle)