Austrian police are investigating an attempt to intimidate two British journalists from giving evidence in an anti-corruption trial after a fake fax was sent to a lawyer representing the pair alleging that they were under investigation for illegal methods while working for the Sunday Times insight team, reports the Austrian Times.
Journalists Jonathan Calvert and Claire Newell were due to give evidence by live video link yesterday in the case of the former Austrian interior minister and member of the European Parliament Ernst Strasser – who was jailed for four years yesterday after being found guilty of taking bribes after a Sunday Times sting. The 56-year-old member of the conservative Austrian People's Party (OeVP) was one of four MEPs caught up in a "cash-for-laws" scandal in 2011.
The Sunday Times pair were posing as lobbyists acting on behalf of hedge fund managers and offered Strasser a 100,000 Euros annual advisor salary to help make the changes they said they needed – and they recorded their discussions using a hidden camera, something which is illegal in Austria.
The anonymous and undated fax sent to the lawyers dealing with the case in England on behalf of the Sunday Times claimed that the pair were the subject of a police investigation as a result of the recording.
Strasser denied having anything to do with the fax.
Strasser was one of a number of MEPs secretly filmed as part of the undercover investigation in which they set up a fake lobbying firm, London based Bergman & Lynch.
The court heard that the Sunday Times had been against allowing the pair to be seen in court as it would make it hard for them to carry out investigative work in the future, and in the end it was accepted they could use a video link-up in which the pair would be hidden from the public and other journalists.
Given that Calvert had been in clear view in the footage the pair secretly filmed, apparently from a camera hidden somewhere on Newell, who now works for the rival Telegraph newspaper, the move was criticised by Austrian media who said it seemed pointless.
Edited versions of the interview were posted on You Tube (see below) but the full unedited version in which Calvert was clearly seen was shown in open court for all to see.
Strasser, of the conservative Austrian People's Party (ÖVP), resigned as an MEP in March 2011 saying he planned to concentrate on proving his innocence of corruption charges.
Strasser claims that he had realised at the start that the lobbyists were fake – but believed they were in fact secret agents working for the Americans, and he had played along in order to catch them out.
But his Austrian party colleague and the man who is the vice president of the European Parliament, Othmar Karas, said it seemed unlikely.
He said he had rarely seen an MEP put so much effort into the attempt to get changes made to the law, involving changes to investment legislation that would have benefited hedge funds.
Strasser claimed he had only made the proposal for new wording not to see it made into law, but simply to go along with the fake lobbyists, but Karas rejected this.
He said: "There was no contact or email beforehand saying that the changes he requested should not be introduced. Indeed, I have never experienced from an MP such an attempt to have a direct influence on a law."
Asked what that involved, he said there had been a total of eight phone calls and four emails between his office and that of Strasser about the subject.
He added: "It was certainly not for me clear that it was to do with an attempt to introduce something that was not eventually to become accepted on the statute books."
He also added that he had been left with a "strange feeling" about the motivation of Strasser with his request, and said that the first time he had heard Strasser believed it was secret agents was when he read it in the media – even though they are both in the ÖVP.
The editor-in-chief of the Austrian daily newspaper the OÖNachrichten which is the local paper for Strasser is one of those watching the case with interest. Gerald Mandlbauer faces a libel case from Strasser after he wrote an editorial in which he commented that politicians needed to set themselves moral standards as well as political standards.
He said: "The investigation by the Sunday Times team was the catalyst that led to the discovery of a large number of similar political scandals here in Austria.
"Whatever the results of the criminal trial, I stand by my comments that politicians should not simply operate to the letter of the law, but should also have a moral obligation. Even if he is acquitted of charges and I lose the libel case, I stand by my comments – because I know my readers feel the same.
"The Sunday Times investigation did lead to a lot of unpleasant discoveries in the political landscape here. But at the same time, it has allowed us to clear out the stall of a lot of mess, and hopefully we will have a better standard in the future."
He added that, ironically, the Sunday Times investigation that included a video of the meetings with the minister would not have been possible in Austria because it was illegal to film anybody in secret.
He said: "In this case the British journalists really did a good job."
Three other MEPs were named in the Sunday Times "sting" operation: Romania's Adrian Severin, Slovenia's Zoran Thaler and Spain's Pablo Zalba.
They all denied wrongdoing. Mr Thaler resigned and Mr Severin was expelled from the centre-left Socialists and Democrats (S&D) bloc, but remains an independent MEP. Pablo Zalba also remains an MEP in Spain's centre-right Popular Party (PP).
In June 2011 the EU anti-fraud agency Olaf said it had found no evidence of fraud on the part of Mr Zalba and closed its investigation into him.