Politics

Corruption hunters who feel like the hunted

The Economic and Corruption Prosecutor’s Office (WKStA) is celebrated by some as an elite unit, while others are sharply criticized. What’s behind it? A portrait of an authority.

Some say they ride in, regardless of loss. Shoot anything that moves. Ruin livelihoods.

The others celebrate them as heroes who put down corrupt politicians and fraudulent managers.

Rarely has an authority polarized as strongly as the Economic and Corruption Prosecutor’s Office (WKStA). What’s behind it? The KURIER asked around the judiciary – from public prosecutors, judges, lawyers and in the ministry.

Founded in 2009 as an elite group against corruption, it probably attracted people with a corresponding personality structure: combative, persistent. In 2012 the economic criminal cases were added. The workforce grew rapidly – too quickly, some say. The job appealed to many young people; many couldn’t cope with the demands and the pressure, they withdrew.

“The fantastic Four”

A hard core remained, and the head of the authorities, Ilse Vrabl-Sanda, formed a circle of trust. Within the judiciary, this circle is (not very benevolently) referred to as “the fantastic four”.

The group of four first included the chief public prosecutors Gregor Adamovic and Christina Jilek, in charge of the Ibiza complex of proceedings, and two media spokesmen. Jilek has since left the WKStA. For around a year now, Matthias Purkart, senior public prosecutor and IT specialist, has also appeared in this narrow circle.

Vrabl-Sanda, Adamovic, Jilek and Purkart are known from the U-Committee. There they complained about harassment from their higher authorities and that a “political corset” was cutting their breath away.

Corruption hunters who see themselves as the hunted – the fight against the outside world welds them together.

Political pressure

First of all, there is the political front: ÖVP Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, for example, considers the WKStA to be a left-leaning force that mainly targets the ÖVP.

There is no proof that the WKStA looks the other way when it comes to red or green: It is investigating the Commerzialbank case, in which the Burgenland SPÖ came under pressure. She is investigating the powerful Viennese SPÖ district chairman Ernst Nevrivy for bribery and is active in the donation affair surrounding ex-Green Christoph Chorherr.

And Adamovic, one of the “fantastic four”, made a name for himself in 2017 as a prosecutor in the Salzburg swap trial against ex-SPÖ mayor Heinz Schaden.

Dispute with the technical supervisor

But not only the ÖVP, but also the WKStA feels harassed for (party) political motives – also within the judiciary: It vehemently defends itself against the many years of black and blue directives in the ministry and against their technical supervision. In person, these are Johann Fuchs, Head of the Vienna Public Prosecutor’s Office, and Christian Pilnacek, Section Head (whose power was only curtailed by Zadić and is currently suspended).

The internal dispute escalated at a meeting on the Eurofighter case in April 2019: Representatives of the WKStA, including Vrabl-Sanda with the “fantastic four”, reported Fuchs and Pilnacek for abuse of office. The meeting was recorded secretly, allegedly by Adamovic – which the WKStA neither confirms nor denies. It was explained that the sound recording was needed for a protocol. The taboo was broken without any legal consequences.

Pilnacek and Fuchs also committed a foul: They exchanged e-mails about the fact that the WKStA should be viewed in a bad light by the media.

The reporting obligation, according to which public prosecutors have to report steps in important proceedings internally, is a constant source of dispute. The reporting obligation is actually a means of quality assurance, says an ex-WKStA man to the KURIER.

In an authority, instructions from superiors are “normal”, but not compatible with the self-image of many in the judiciary: “Public prosecutors have trained as judges. They are socialized in such a way that they make independent decisions and do not have to justify themselves.” An elite group like the WKStA in particular finds it difficult to bear reporting obligations. Every intervention is perceived as an attack.

Justified criticism

Other public prosecutors told KURIER that criticism of maneuvers is justified. For example: “The WKStA likes to get bogged down in individual procedural strands that lead nowhere, because it believes it has to be particularly meticulous and strict.” In addition to the reporting obligation, this is a factor in the often long duration of the proceedings.

On the side front, there are rivalries with other public prosecutors. The WKStA can reject proceedings if it does not feel responsible and attract others to it. It is clear that this WKStA privilege does not please other investigators.

Report against a journalist

The WKStA also has its skirmishes with the media: One Press-Journalist analyzed a supreme court decision on improper investigative practices. The WKStA must have felt trodden on the tie and reported the journalist. Adamovic, Jilek and Purkart were there too. The ad went nowhere.

Vice Chancellor Kogler, currently Minister of Justice, said the WKStA had “crossed a red line” with the report. Nevertheless, the Greens continue to vehemently defend the authority against restructuring plans by the ÖVP (see below).

Friends of the ÖVP and WKStA will probably no longer be, but at least the tone has relaxed. Finance Minister Blümel said after the search of his house: “Although that was an uncomfortable situation, I have to say that the gentlemen were very fair and polite.”

Note: WKStA boss Vrabl-Sanda did not want to give the KURIER an interview, the media office referred to earlier statements and stated that individual clerks as persons were not the subject of information.

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