German president tries to counter loan criticism

AP News
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Posted: Dec 15, 2011 12:44 PM
German president tries to counter loan criticism

Germany's president tried Thursday to defuse criticism over a private loan he received before becoming head of state, saying he regrets that his handling of the issue may have created the "wrong impression."

Christian Wulff has faced questions about his integrity this week over the euro500,000 ($650,000) loan made at below market rates by a wealthy businessman's wife, a longtime friend. He received it in 2008, when he was governor of Lower Saxony state.

Before he was elected president last year, opposition lawmakers in the regional legislature asked him if he had had business relations with Egon Geerkens, a former jeweler and investor. He said he hadn't, but didn't mention the loan from Geerkens' wife.

Wulff, who was long a deputy leader of Angela Merkel's conservative party and was the chancellor's candidate for the presidency, said he had answered the questions put to him and had seen no need to mention the private loan.

"I recognize that the wrong impression could arise here. I regret that," Wulff said in a statement Thursday _ his first comment since the mass-circulation Bild daily reported on the loan and asked in a headline Tuesday: "Did Wulff deceive Parliament?"

Wulff used the money to purchase a new home. The money was repaid before he became president, with help from a bank loan.

"It would have been better if ... going beyond the concrete questions, I also had mentioned this private loan agreement with Mrs. Geerkens, because I had and have nothing to hide," Wulff said.

Merkel welcomed the president's statement and underlined her support for Wulff, telling reporters that she "highly values" his work. "This statement was important, and I believe it helped to clarify the matter," Merkel said.

The primary role of Germany's largely ceremonial president is to serve as a moral authority.

Wulff's silence following an initial statement from his spokesman that said the lawmakers' questions had been "answered correctly" rankled with critics, who argued that his handling of the story fell short of the transparency expected from the head of state.

"It doesn't do justice to the office of the president if you have to ask yourself every morning before opening the paper whether there is some story about Christian Wulff that could make him look suspect," Ulrich Maurer, a senior lawmaker with the opposition Left Party, said before Wulff issued his statement. He urged the president to "clear the air."

Merkel tapped Wulff for the presidency after his predecessor, Horst Koehler, quit abruptly in mid-2010 _ complaining of unduly harsh media criticism over comments he made about the German military's role in the world.

Egon Geerkens was quoted Thursday as telling the daily Sueddeutsche Zeitung that he had derived no business gain from his long friendship with Wulff, and noting that he had already given up his business activities at the time of the loan.

"It was a purely private loan from my wife for a friend," he said, according to the report.

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Associated Press Writer Melissa Eddy contributed to this report.