After Benko's rejection: MPs want a sanction

After Benko's rejection: MPs want a sanction

In an era of low interest rates, René Benko had built up an opaque business network, which included, among other things, the unfinished Elbtower in Hamburg. photo

© Marcel Kusch/German Press Agency GmbH/dpa

His appearance was eagerly awaited. MEPs consider this cancellation a lack of respect for Parliament. They want to change the mind of the founder of Signa by threatening him with sanctions.

The members of an investigative committee of the Austrian Parliament do not want to accept so easily the last minute rejection of ex-billionaire René Benko.

The social democrat SPÖ announced a proposed sanction, a measure which was welcomed by all other parties. Conservative ÖVP MP Andreas Hanger said the timing of refusing the invited entrepreneur as a witness constituted contempt for Parliament. The Federal Administrative Court must rule on a request. A new meeting with Benko would then probably be possible in April or mid-May, said SPÖ MP Jan Krainer.

Lots of buzz around Benko

The founder of Signa, 46, had avoided a very explosive appearance. The parliamentarians probably not only confronted the former real estate tycoon, whom the media today rather disparagingly describes as a “financial juggler”, with the very subject of the commission: alleged tax advantages for super -rich with close ties to the ruling conservative ÖVP party.

It would also be the decline of the Signa empire, about which many questions still remain unanswered. “Signa was and remains a high-risk bet on low interest rates, aggressive expansion and massive appreciation,” Green MP Nina Tomaselli said before the meeting began. Low interest rates and good political connections are not a business concept.

The questioning of another witness, the former head of department at the Ministry of Finance and current head of the Financial Markets Authority (FMA) Eduard Müller, was not particularly spectacular. Müller repeatedly stressed that, in his opinion, the authorities had not given Benko any special treatment. The Tyrolean was a taxpayer like any other.

Signa founder is on ice

According to his lawyer, the fact that Benko did not answer the parliamentarians' questions was due to a “unique” situation. As can be seen in the media, authorities are investigating dozens of criminal and tax complaints, said lawyer Norbert Wess. However, his client has not yet been officially informed. This means that the entrepreneur cannot answer questions in Parliament because he risks entering into a conflict between the obligation to tell the truth and the right to refuse to testify, according to the letter available to the German Press Agency . In other words: the 46-year-old would be on extremely thin ice.

Former Chancellor Sebastian Kurz (ÖVP) recently had painful experiences when making statements to a committee of inquiry. He was sentenced – which is not legally binding – to an eight-month suspended sentence for making false statements to the parliamentary committee.

Benko, who has repeatedly been considered a billionaire and enjoyed the best lifestyle with a private jet and a large yacht, has avoided publicity since his corporate empire's series of bankruptcies. Erhard Grossnigg, renovator of Signa, recently told the magazine “Profil” that Benko “paid itself 30, 50 million euros in dividends for years”. What does a man feel who lost practically everything a few months after his words? Anyway, according to the “Tiroler Tageszeitung”, during his bankruptcy he declared that he earned 3,700 euros per month as an employee of two of his companies. He could only earn a living “through the support of his family (especially his mother)”, the newspaper quoted the insolvency administrator's report as saying.

Peschorn: “I slept very restlessly”

The profound fall of René Benko does not yet seem to be over. “I would sleep very restlessly,” said the chairman of the Financial Prosecutor's Office, Wolfgang Peschorn, about the former real estate tycoon and the threat of legal action.

Benko was described by investors as a “de facto chief executive” and was therefore likely the driving force behind the deals, said Peschorn, whose authority represents the republic's interests. The largest economic bankruptcy in Austrian history – creditors' claims amount to more than twelve billion euros – is likely to keep investigators busy for a long time. The commission of inquiry itself will soon have to interrupt its work again due to the National Council elections scheduled for the fall.


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