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Prosecutors examine TA's Serbian adventure

Austrian investors who cooperated with Telekom Austria (TA) are facing fraud investigations.

Magazine profil reported in its online edition yesterday (Thurs) that anti-corruption investigators started examining the actions of billionaire Martin Schlaff and former People’s Party (ÖVP) chief Josef Taus, one of Austria’s busiest investors. TA benefited from Schlaff’s engagements in Bulgaria where the Austrian telecommunication and mobile services firm bought two companies.

The recently started investigations of the Austrian anti-corruption prosecution have to do with deals in Serbia, according to business papers. TA tried to snatch up a Serbian mobile communications company in 2005 following investments by a group of businessmen including Schlaff and Taus. The Viennese firm’s attempt eventually failed as its target was taken over by a Norwegian enterprise in the end.

Reports have it that the involved entrepreneurs must brace for fraud, bribery and embezzlement investigations. Few details have emerged but a spokesman for Schlaff branded the accusations as "utterly baseless". He said that Schlaff provided officials with all documents about the investments in Serbia. Neither Taus nor TA commented on the news.

The Republic of Austria holds a share of 28.4 per cent in TA which is quoted on the Vienna Stock Exchange (WBAG). ÖVP Finance Minister Maria Fekter will be confronted with questions by the opposition regarding controversial occurrences around the firm in the past years when parliament gathers on Tuesday. The Freedom Party (FPÖ) cooperated with the Alliance for the Future of Austria (BZÖ) and the Green Party in creating a majority to enforce an extraordinary gathering of the federal parliament.

The three opposition factions joined forces in the past weeks to avoid a premature ending of the anti-corruption commission. The parliamentary panel started examining allegedly corrupt decisions by former TA bosses in January. Several high-ranking ÖVP officials – including party head Michael Spindelegger – publicly backed an end of investigations before summer in favour of full support for prosecutors’ examinations. Barbara Prammer of the SPÖ, who heads the parliament, rejected the suggestions. Social Democrat Hannes Jarolim welcomed the decision. He said the anti-corruption committee might manage to hand in its final report in December.

Alleged illegal financing of parties and illicit transactions to lobbyists by TA chiefs are just two of a wide range of topics the committee plans to investigate. The panel also wants to clarify whether laws were broken when federal property management company ÖIAG was privatised in 2004. Lobbyists with strong ties to Karl-Heinz Grasser, who was Austrian finance minister at that time, received a bonus of nearly 10 million Euros from the succeeding consortium.

Polls show that the various speculations significantly harmed the reputation of the established parties. While some observers think that new movements like the Austrian Pirate Party (PPÖ) could succeed in next year’s election, others – including former ÖVP boss Erhard Busek – fear that the right-wing FPÖ will be the only benefiter. Greens chairwoman Eva Glawischnig said she was not afraid of up and coming groups of keyboard warriors like the PPÖ. Glawischnig told the Salzburger Nachrichten she appreciated "everything which creates a stir" in Austrian politics. Glawischnig revealed that her party was in touch with some of the recently emerged movements.

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