“The picture is not really a particularly rosy one,” said the head of auditing, Hannes Schuh, in front of journalists. A study by pollster Sabine Beinschab on “economic and budget policy” caught the internal auditor’s attention negatively. Started in September 2016, it should have only cost 34,680 euros. However, 155,940 euros were paid because nine additional bills had been submitted by January 2018. The revision could not understand what the purpose of the “supplementary work” was. The order had a “high level of irregularity”, it said in the report.
The Economic and Corruption Prosecutor’s Office (WKStA) is investigating the suspicion that confidants of ex-Chancellor Sebastian Kurz (ÖVP) may have supported his political rise through manipulated surveys and paid for it with funds from the Ministry of Finance. The investigators take evidence of this from chats between the former Secretary General in the Ministry of Finance, Thomas Schmid, and the opinion researcher Sabine Beinschab, who has worked for the daily newspaper “Austria” for a long time.
The investigators believe that Beinschab could have offset polls published later in “Austria” about bogus orders to the Ministry of Finance. The WKStA suspects one of these sham orders in the aforementioned study on budget policy. The revision checked a total of 28 studies that were commissioned by the communications department of the ministry, 13 of them at Beinschab. Result: in no single case was there an invitation to tender, in 26 cases the study results were missing in the file and in two cases the studies could no longer be found on request. These are two studies accounted for by Beinschab on the subjects of “zero deficit” and “tax relief”.
His auditors also found irregularities in the communications department’s advertisements in the daily newspaper “Österreich”. Here, too, there were direct awards without an invitation to tender, even though advertisements should actually have been placed via Federal Procurement. In addition, according to Schuh, the initiative for placing advertisements always came from the newspaper. Here too the files were incomplete. Brunner announced that he wanted to reduce the ministry’s advertisements in the future. The results of the investigation would have shown “deficits that stand in the way of the self-image of a modern and effective administration.”
The report leaves out the question of whether the communications department has discussed its approach with Schmid or the ministerial office. The revision focused exclusively on the files at hand and did not conduct any interviews. “The fact that there are probably meetings with someone else beforehand in some cases is not recorded on the record,” said Schuh. “External correspondence” (for example with the ÖVP or the Chancellery, note) cannot be found in the files.
Johannes Pasquali, the head of the communications department who is currently off duty, has been harshly criticizing the revision’s approach. He emphasized in a written statement that he had no knowledge of any agreements between Schmid and Beinschab. In addition, he always assumed the “lawful use” of the studies. Nevertheless, contrary to the revision rules of the ministry, he was not asked about the allegations. “I would have liked to have contributed to clarification and understanding, but this was obviously not wanted and was even refused in writing,” said Pasquali.
In any case, the Ministry of Finance is now considering keeping itself harmless for the costs incurred, as the chief financial officer, Wolfgang Peschorn, said. Like the studies, he forwarded the audit report to the WKStA. Incidentally, the ministry does not raise any allegations against Susanne Thier, the friend of ex-Chancellor Kurz, who also worked in the communications department before her parental leave, as Peschorn said. (APA)