Markus Braun, the former chief executive of disgraced payments company Wirecard, told MPs that German regulators and politicians were not to blame for the fall of the company, and that he hoped prosecutors would succeed in tracing its missing billions.
Mr Braun is one of at least seven former top managers of Wirecard suspected of running a criminal racket that defrauded creditors of €3.2bn. His appearance on Thursday before the Bundestag inquiry investigating Wirecard was his first in public since his arrest last summer, shortly after the company he led collapsed into insolvency in one of the biggest accounting scandals in postwar German history.
In a statement to the inquiry, Mr Braun said he had “at no point” concluded that “authorities, supervisory bodies or politicians had behaved improperly, dishonestly or in breach of their duties” in the run-up to Wirecard’s collapse.
“I can’t understand why external regulators should be held responsible for failures here,” he said. Mr Braun added that EY, Wirecard’s longtime auditor, was “apparently comprehensively deceived” during the annual audits as it did not spot irregularities “despite extensive checks”.
But having delivered his statement, Mr Braun refused to answer any questions from MPs, citing his right under German law to remain silent. He declined to answer even basic inquiries, such as what the subject of his PhD thesis was or if he had a daughter.
Mr Braun did, however, emphasise that he had signalled his willingness to co-operate with prosecutors, adding that he had “full confidence in the independence and objectivity of the investigative authorities” and their ability to trace “the whereabouts of the embezzled money”.
MPs were infuriated by his reluctance to answer their questions. Cansel Kiziltepe, a lawmaker for the Social Democrats, suggested he had “destroyed people’s faith” in German institutions. “Are you aware that your silence is dragging people into the abyss?” she asked.
Hans Michelbach, an MP for Angela Merkel’s CDU-CSU bloc, suggested in the proceedings that Mr Braun should be fined for refusing to engage with MPs.
Munich prosecutors accuse Mr Braun of being the leader of a “gang” of white-collar criminals who for years ran an elaborate fraud scheme, hoodwinked banks and investors and embezzled billions of euros — crimes that are punishable by up to 15 years in jail. Mr Braun has dismissed all the allegations against him.
MPs set up the parliamentary inquiry last summer as the Wirecard affair began to escalate from a corporate affair into a political scandal.
Lawmakers want to know why the authorities seemed so slow to recognise the gravity of the situation at Wirecard, and why Germany’s financial regulator BaFin seemed more eager to pursue journalists and short-sellers who had exposed irregularities at the payments processing group than to go after the company itself.
The nine members of the investigative committee will also look at why German politicians, including Angela Merkel herself, lobbied for Wirecard even after irregularities at the company had come to light. They will also want to know if Jan Marsalek, the former Wirecard executive who is now on an Interpol wanted list, had any connections to the intelligence services.
Mr Braun’s appearance in Berlin came almost exactly six months after his last public statement on June 18 — the day that marked the ultimate downfall of the once high-flying technology start-up. EY had refused to audit Wirecard’s 2019 financial report after uncovering that bank documents showing €1.9bn of corporate cash were “spurious”.
In a video recorded late at night, Mr Braun told investors that “at present, it cannot be ruled out that Wirecard AG has become the aggrieved party in a case of fraud of considerable proportions”.
Just hours after the video statement was published on Wirecard’s website, the company’s supervisory board forced Mr Braun to resign. Within days, he had been arrested by Munich prosecutors and Wirecard had crashed into insolvency.
Mr Braun was initially released on bail but rearrested a month later after Oliver Bellenhaus, a former senior Wirecard executive who turned crown witness, raised serious allegations against the former chief executive.
He has been in custody since late July alongside Mr Bellenhaus and Wirecard’s former head of accounting, Stephan von Erffa. A fourth suspect, former chief financial officer Burkhard Ley, was released on bail earlier this month. Mr von Erffa and Mr Ley are denying wrongdoing.