Austria: Cofag: Bussi-Bussi clique under the microscope

Austria: Cofag: Bussi-Bussi clique under the microscope

The SPÖ arrives at the committee with a special briefcase.

Photo: imago/

There are currently two days in Vienna Committees of Inquiry. The Cofag Committee is particularly interesting for three reasons: Firstly, the Austrian Parliament is assessing for the first time the financial injections that were given to companies by the conservative-green government during the Corona pandemic. Secondly, the entrepreneur could Rene Benko have their first official appearance here since the Signa bankruptcy. According to Jan Trainer from the Austrian Social Democratic Party (SPÖ), he is said to have received “exclusive tips and support from the Ministry of Finance” to avoid taxes. However, he spontaneously canceled his appointment on Thursday. Thirdly, the committee provides meaningful insights into Austria’s politics and its relationship to the super-rich.

On Wednesday, several tax officials from Innsbruck, Benko’s hometown, were questioned about the sale of the Tuchlauben complex, a luxury shopping center in Vienna. After the sale, Signa Holding was supposed to pay 50 million euros in back taxes. It then moved its headquarters from Vienna to Innsbruck, which also changed the responsible tax office. Benko suddenly only had to pay 36 million in additional payments. The officials claimed they had nothing to do with it.

On Thursday, Eduard Müller was interviewed after Benko’s rejection. From 2015 he was section head in the Ministry of Finance and from 2019 to 2020 Finance Minister in Brigitte Bierlein’s expert government. According to the accusation in the U-Committee, he is said to have intervened on behalf of Benko and the Signa Group. Former employees also accused him of repeatedly interfering in tax proceedings such as that of Benko. Müller vehemently denied this during his questioning. He has “nothing to blame himself for,” except that he “didn’t see through Schmid,” reports the daily newspaper “Der Standard.” Thomas Schmid was head of cabinet and general secretary under ÖVP Chancellor Sebastian Kurz and an integral part of the “Kurz System”. A group around the ex-chancellor who is said to have given each other positions, money and information.

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The abbreviation Cofag stands for Covid-19 Federal Financing Agency GmbH. This was founded in 2020 and was responsible during the pandemic for preventing Austrian companies from becoming insolvent through financial support. “Fast and efficient, transparent and comprehensible,” as it says in its self-description.

While the former attributes are discussed elsewhere – some of the promised payments have not yet been made – the Cofag Committee is concerned with the question of transparency. Specifically, whether politicians from the conservative ÖVP used their influence to provide more funding to billionaire friends. Hence the official name: committee of inquiry into two-tier administration due to ÖVP government members favoring billionaires. It is unclear why the Greens, who are also involved in the government, are left out. The committee will review the period from 2017 to 2023, and the next meeting will take place at the end of April.

The super-rich person in question is René Benko. As early as March, figures from the Ministry of Finance’s transparency portal revealed that the companies attributed to René Benko had received at least 18.7 million euros from Cofag. According to the U-Committee’s accusation, this means that the limit set by the EU for corporate associations of 14 million euros has been exceeded. Provided that Benko’s investments are seen as a group of companies.

He justified his second rejection of the U-Committee in a letter to the Parliamentary Directorate. He said through his lawyer that the “sensational media coverage” in the run-up to his appointment with “new allegations almost every day” made his appearance “unreasonable.” He could not estimate what his right to refuse to testify was. This is what the radio station Ö1 reported.

Parliament has now requested a prison sentence for Benko in order to encourage him to testify. This would mean a hearing could take place in April or May. It is obvious that Benko is worried about upcoming legal proceedings. It was only in February that ex-Chancellor Kurz was found guilty of making false statements in the Ibiza investigative committee. This committee examined the venality of the turquoise-blue federal government. Short appealed.

MP Klaus Frühlinger (ÖVP) used the Ibiza Committee to question the purpose of the Cofag Committee before it began. According to Springer’s parliamentary correspondence, the result would be “overall damage” to politics. This was shown by the population’s reactions to previous U-committees. It is all the more remarkable that a second committee meets parallel to the Cofag committee. The “Red-Blue Abuse of Power Investigative Committee” is supposed to examine the periods of government of the SPÖ and FPÖ between 2007 and 2020. A negative example would be the former SPÖ Chancellor Alfred Gusenbauer. Three weeks after the end of his term in office, he accepted a position as a consultant to Signa Holding.

What can be seen from the U-committees: Many current and former government members, regardless of their background, were on a kiss-kiss basis with Benko. So connected with a kiss on the cheek, as they say in Austria. There will be elections there in the fall – the committees are not a successful election campaign ploy.

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