Officials of the Osnabrück public prosecutor’s office searched the rooms of the Federal Ministry of Finance and the Federal Ministry of Justice on Thursday. The background is criminal proceedings against officials of the Financial Intelligence Unit of Customs (FIU), the nationwide responsible money laundering special unit. The public prosecutor’s office has been investigating since February 2020 against previously unspecified persons in charge of the FIU on suspicion of thwarting punishment in office. Accordingly, the authority could not have forwarded money laundering suspicious transaction reports from banks to the judiciary and the police and thereby thwarted investigations into the arms trade and terrorist financing.
The aim of the searches is “to further clarify the suspected criminal offense and in particular individual responsibilities,” said the public prosecutor on Thursday. In July 2020, the investigators had already searched the headquarters of the FIU in Cologne and apparently secured extensive e-mail communication with representatives of both ministries. With a view to the measures taken on Thursday, the Osnabrück authority stated that it should be investigated, among other things, “whether and, if so, to what extent the management and those responsible for the ministries as well as higher-level departments were involved in the decisions of the FIU.”
“Expressly not against employees of the BMF”
According to the public prosecutor’s office, the starting point of the proceedings is a suspicious transaction report from a bank to the FIU in 2018, which allegedly involved payments of around one million euros. The investigative authorities suspect payments in connection with arms and drug trafficking as well as the financing of terrorism. The customs officials took note of this report, but did not forward it, according to the Osnabrück public prosecutor’s office. Their responsibility had arisen because it initially involved at least one suspicious transaction report from the local savings bank.
The searches in the two SPD-led ministries took place only 17 days before the general election and came at an inopportune time for the Social Democrats. In Berlin, some do not believe in a coincidence and pointed out that the responsible Ministry of Justice in Lower Saxony is run by the CDU. In its statement, the BMF stated, among other things, that the search warrant of the Osnabrück District Court was dated August 10th. A spokesman for the CDU-led state justice ministry in Hanover declined to comment, but stressed that the ministry was not involved in the matter in advance. The Osnabrück public prosecutor did not want to comment on why the search was carried out this Thursday.
The Federal Ministry of Finance said it would support the investigators. The suspicion is “expressly not directed against employees of the BMF”, it says in a written statement. Rather, the investigators are concerned with the identification of employees of the central office in Cologne and with information on the question of the extent to which the so-called “risk-based approach” of the FIU has been legally discussed and secured. The working principle of the FIU is to first check suspicious activity reports from banks and financial institutions and then forward them to any responsible investigative authorities, which often takes a long time.
Scholz’s heavy legacy at customs
With the investigations against the FIU officials, a dispute between the authorities that had been going on for years had escalated. Before the summer of 2017, the federal and state criminal authorities were entrusted with combating money laundering. The then finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble (CDU) had placed responsibility for the issue against the advice of numerous experts at customs. The state criminal investigation offices and the financial investigation groups of customs and police should only receive “valuable reports” and thus suspicious payments should be pursued more efficiently. The opposite happened: the newly created customs office was considered to be overwhelmed from the start, and too poorly equipped in terms of staff and technology. Investigators complained that the number of messages forwarded has decreased significantly and that data exchange is not working.
The incumbent Federal Finance Minister and SPD Chancellor candidate Olaf Scholz (SPD) had inherited the FIU problem from his predecessor. During Scholz’s tenure, the boss was replaced, the staff was increased to 469 employees by the beginning of 2021, and the FIU’s access options to data from law enforcement, finance and administrative authorities were expanded. The criticism from the ranks of the law enforcement authorities remained.