Von der Leyen admits mistakes, denies responsibility in defence contract scandal

The head of the European Commission admitted that mistakes had been made but denied the accusation of nepotism. The question of whether evidence had been illegally deleted from her mobile phone also remains unsolved. EPA-EFE/HAYOUNG JEON [HAYOUNG JEON/EPA]

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen denied personal liability but admitted mistakes had been made as she faced questions from lawmakers in the Bundestag yesterday (13 February) in the so-called “advisor affair”. EURACTIV Germany reports.

Von der Leyen was questioned by a committee of inquiry in the Bundestag yesterday (13 February) for her possible involvement in a multi-million contracting scandal during her stint as Germany’s defence minister.

The defence ministry spent hundreds of millions of euros on external consultants while she was defence minister in 2013-2019, possibly in breach of public procurement law. And many of those at the centre of the investigation are connected to von der Leyen, raising suspicions that she personally weighed in the decisions.

Yesterday, the head of the European Commission admitted that mistakes had been made  when awarding the contracts, but she denied accusations of nepotism.

“Public procurement infringements have occurred,” von der Leyen admitted, without specifying who was responsible.

The Commission President acknowledged two mistakes: First, the price-performance ratio of the ministry’s IT contracts was not sufficiently examined at the time, she admitted. Second, the ministry used a framework agreement for IT consulting services, a decision which the Federal Court of Auditors later condemned as inadmissible.

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Wrong contract

It is one of those IT consulting contracts which came under the Bundestag’s scrutiny yesterday. The contract was initially signed between the interior ministry and an IT service company called SVA (System Vertrieb Alexander).

However, it was a framework contract, meaning other ministerial departments and sub-contractors could also use it. This is what the defence ministry did at the time, awarding the multi-million-euro contract to SVA, who in turn had commissioned a subcontractor: the management consultancy Accenture.

This was a fateful decision given that Katrin Suder, then-Secretary of State in the defence ministry, had a “knowing relationship” (‘Kennverhältnis’ in German) with the assigned Accenture employee, Timo Noetzel: The pair had worked together at McKinsey before and Suder was invited to the christening of Noetzel’s children.

To top it all, a colleague from the defence ministry, General Erhard Bühler, who was responsible for the planning, was one of the child’s godfather.

During today’s interrogation, opposition parties expressed suspicion that Suder and Bühler had given their friend Noetzel and Accenture the lucrative contract by using the SVA framework contract. However, this is something Bühler denies, telling the committee that he felt “slandered”.

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No personal responsibility

Von der Leyen admitted that using a framework contract was a mistake, but she denied any form of nepotism. She especially defended Suder, saying she was a “personality of integrity” who had carried out her tasks with “brilliance and bravery”.

However, when it came to General Bühler, she decided against his permanent promotion to four-star general: He was only temporarily given this rank, anything else would have sent the wrong signal, the Commission head said. Bühler is now a three-star General Commander at NATO, while Suder is a Senior Fellow at the private Hertie School.

Some in the  Bundestag’s committee of inquiry had hoped that von der Leyen would at least take political responsibility as the minister in charge at the time. But she denied any personal involvement in decisions related to the contracts, saying the mistakes had been made below ministerial level.

Erased text messages

Whether that will suffice to keep von der Leyen out of trouble remains to be seen. Even though she denies any wrongdoing, the Commission President still faces potential political and even legal consequences.

After all, the committee never got hold of the text messages in von der Leyen’s cell phone, which was wiped clean of all data after she handed it back to the ministry. If she knew about the erroneous procedures, she could have written about them with colleagues.

Although her messages were officially declared as evidence on 1 July 2019, her mobile phone was handed to the ministry and checked for “security clearance” one month later, on 8 August 2019. As her phone number had been published online, this was allegedly part of a routine procedure.

This appears quite odd. Since the scandal broke out in January 2019, she received a new phone but kept the old one until it was picked up on 8 August. All text messages were deleted on the new phone as well.

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‘Concrete scandal’ and criminal charges

Von der Leyen assured parliamentarians on Wednesday (13 February) that she personally looked through all the text messages – “to the best of my knowledge and belief” – before the deletion took place to make sure that no relevant evidence was lost.

Yet in her opinion, the messages had nothing to do with the investigation which is why she felt they could be deleted with confidence.

Tobias Lindner, a Green MEP in the committee, called this a “tangible scandal” – and filed a criminal complaint in December alleging destruction of evidence.

The result of the investigation committee will be handed over to the public prosecutor’s office in June, which will then have to decide whether to initiate investigations.

[Edited by Frédéric Simon]

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