BERLIN (AP) — Finance Minister Olaf Scholz, the front-runner in Germany's election, appeared before lawmakers during the final week of campaigning on Monday to face questions over an investigation of an anti-money-laundering unit that resulted in a recent police search at his ministry.
Scholz and his Social Democrats have raised questions over the necessity and motivation of the Sept. 9 searches at his ministry and the justice ministry, which also is run by his center-left party. Outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel's center-right Union bloc, which polls show trailing by a few points before Sunday's election, has seized on the searches and on Scholz's reaction to assail the candidate.
Opposition parties called a special meeting of parliament's finance committee to discuss the matter. Following criticism over reports that he likely would only testify by video link, Scholz appeared in person, but was still expected to make it to two of three planned campaign appearances in southwestern Germany.
Investigators are looking into suspected obstruction of justice by unidentified employees of the Financial Intelligence Unit, or FIU, a unit of Germany's customs service. They say they have been investigating since last year because indications of possible money laundering from banks to the FIU weren’t passed on to police and judicial authorities.
The finance ministry ultimately oversees the unit, and says the suspicion of wrongdoing isn't directed against its own employees. It says Scholz has reinforced the FIU since becoming finance minister in 2018, and that its head was replaced that year.
After what he called a “very lively” meeting, Scholz strongly defended his work.
“I took the opportunity to explain once again that the last three years were probably the best years for the positioning of our authorities regarding the fight against money laundering and terror financing,” he told reporters. “We have achieved more in the past three years than in the last 30 years.”
Opponents have long pointed to other events that have taken place on Scholz's watch, such as the collapse last year of payment processing company Wirecard.
“All in all, the impression arises that Olaf Scholz is the finance minister of financial scandals,” Florian Toncar, a lawmaker with the pro-business Free Democrats, said before the hearing.
The questioning comes the morning after the last of three televised debates between Scholz and the other two candidates for chancellor, the Union's Armin Laschet and the Greens' Annalena Baerbock. As with the previous two, a flash poll showed that respondents thought Scholz left the best impression. Recent surveys haven't suggested any noticeable impact from the FIU investigation.
Laschet, who isn't currently a federal lawmaker and wasn't at Monday's hearing, criticized Scholz for even considering not appearing in person.
“In a democracy, ministers are always politically irresponsible for things that happen in their area of business, so it was good that he's there," Laschet told a news conference. But “what we've heard so far in the way of comments hasn't cleared things up in the dimensions that they must be cleared up.”
Laschet declared himself “firmly convinced that the Union will win this parliamentary election ... the race is open as never before."
He pointed to harmony between Scholz and Baerbock in Sunday night's debate to renew his assertion that the Social Democrats and Greens would, if they have a majority, form a coalition with the opposition Left Party, which opposes NATO and German military missions abroad.
Their financial policies, he said, “would lead Germany into a serious economic crisis.”
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