BERLIN: Germany's finance minister faces a grilling Thursday by lawmakers probing the collapse of payments firm Wirecard in a parliamentary inquiry that would also put Chancellor Angela Merkel in the hot seat.
Finance Minister Olaf Scholz, who has described the Wirecard scandal as "unparalleled" in Germany, is up before MPs, two days after Economy Minister Peter Altmaier appeared before the parliamentary committee.
Lawmakers are investigating the political and regulatory failings that allowed the Wirecard cheating to go unnoticed for years, with critics saying early warning signs were ignored.
Once a rising star in the booming fintech sector, Wirecard filed for bankruptcy last year after admitting that 1.9 billion euros ($2.3 billion) was missing from its accounts.
The company's former chief executive Markus Braun and several other top executives were arrested on fraud and money-laundering charges.
The focus on politicians' roles in the drama comes at an awkward time for Merkel's ruling conservatives and their Social Democratic (SPD) coalition partners, five months before a general election.
- Merkel in China -
Outgoing chancellor Merkel will be quizzed Friday over her role in the scandal after it emerged she promoted Wirecard on a trip to China in September 2019 when the firm was eyeing a foray into the Chinese market.
Her intervention has raised eyebrows because journalists were already voicing doubts about Wirecard's books at the time.
Merkel should ask herself whether "promoting Wirecard was really appropriate or whether her office should not have looked into the warning signs earlier," said Frank Schaeffler, an MP from the pro-business FDP party who is on the committee.
Also accused of being too slow to react is Merkel's would-be successor Scholz from the centre-left SPD, whose finance ministry oversees banking regulator Bafin, which has come under fire for its lax oversight of Wirecard.
That, in turn, "raises the question of the political responsibility of Olaf Scholz and his state secretaries," said Matthias Hauer, a conservative MP on the committee.
Up before lawmakers on Wednesday, state secretary Joerg Kukies had insisted that Wirecard at no point benefited from special treatment from the ministry.
Bafin has been particularly criticised for its decision to impose a two-month ban on shorting Wirecard shares in early 2019, which Schaeffler said "seriously damaged trust in Germany as a financial centre".
Bafin also controversially filed a complaint against two Financial Times journalists who reported about irregularities at Wirecard, while dismissing their suspicions.
The regulator has in recent months undergone sweeping reforms and a reshuffle at the top.
- 'Criminal behaviour' -
With the election battle in full swing, SPD and opposition MPs have sought to shift the spotlight onto the conservative-run economy ministry by highlighting the role of Wirecard auditors.
As Wirecard's auditor for more than 10 years, accountancy giant EY signed off on the firm's accounts even as a string of media reports raised alarm about Wirecard's accounting practices.
As they grilled Economy Minister Altmaier on Tuesday, lawmakers questioned whether the ministry's auditing watchdog APAS should have scrutinised EY's work more closely.
Any shortcomings on the part of APAS would mean "the minister had not done his work properly either," FDP deputy Florian Toncar said.
Though he denied responsibility for the scandal, Altmaier told the committee that compliance rules at APAS would be tightened.
In a midway report in March, lawmakers on the committee denounced what they called "a culture of non-responsibility" and said that financial authorities and political leaders had "well-founded indications of criminal behaviour at Wirecard".
Some of those responsible have already lost their job, including former Bafin chief Felix Hufeld, who was dismissed in January.