German president faces new trouble in loan affair

AP News
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Posted: Jan 02, 2012 11:22 AM
German president faces new trouble in loan affair

A German newspaper said Monday that the country's president complained to its editor about its plans to report on a private loan he received and threatened legal action, deepening an affair that has raised mounting questions over the head of state's authority and judgment.

The mass-circulation Bild daily reported for the first time on Dec. 13 that President Christian Wulff received a euro500,000 ($650,000) private loan from the wife of a wealthy businessman and friend, apparently at below market rates, in 2008. At the time, he was governor of Lower Saxony state.

Months before he became president in 2010, regional opposition lawmakers asked Wulff if he had business relations with longtime friend Egon Geerkens, a former jeweler and investor. He said he hadn't, failing to mention the loan from Geerkens' wife.

Critics have said Wulff needs to do more to explain the loan _ but also have faulted his handling of the story. Following days of silence in which he communicated mostly through his lawyers, Wulff made a public statement on Dec. 22 apologizing for not disclosing the loan in 2010.

That appeared to calm matters, but on Monday, another newspaper, Sueddeutsche Zeitung, reported that Wulff had called Bild editor-in-chief Kai Diekmann to try and halt the Dec. 13 report on the loan.

Wulff's office said he greatly values media freedom and doesn't comment on private or telephone conversations.

Bild said it had given Wulff an opportunity to comment on the loan issue before it went public with the story. It said the president gave, then retracted, a statement on Dec. 12.

Wulff tried to contact Diekmann, but didn't reach him because he was on a business trip, Bild said. The president then left an indignant message about Bild's research into the loan on Diekmann's cellphone mailbox and threatened legal action against the editor involved, it added.

Three days later, Wulff contacted Diekmann again and apologized for "the tone and contents of his comments on the cellphone mailbox," Bild said.

Bild said it then decided not to report on the incident itself _ though it has continued to report on details of the loan, which Wulff used to buy a house.

Prosecutors have said they see no evidence of a criminal offense regarding the loan and won't investigate. But Germany's largely ceremonial president is supposed to serve as a moral authority, and critics have raised questions over Wulff's integrity and judgment.

"I appreciate that not everything that is legally legitimate is also correct," Wulff said on Dec. 22. However, he added: "Personal friendships are important to me, but they have not influenced my conduct in office."

Wulff was Chancellor Angela Merkel's candidate for the presidency and before that a deputy leader of her conservative party. Merkel and her party have defended Wulff so far; a resignation would be embarrassing and distracting for the chancellor as she tries to tame the eurozone debt crisis.

The German Journalists' Association noted that the president is supposed to set an example. Its chairman, Michael Konken, said that prominent people have to be prepared to put up with critical reporting.

"No one should know that better than the head of state," he said.