The Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) remains in turmoil. We reported a series of scandals surrounding former Chancellor Sebastian Kurz that rocked the party over the course of last year. Now, a seemingly minor car accident threatens to escalate into the next major state disgrace.
While large parts of the media downplayed the incident in their original reporting, an anonymous letter from a police officer of the special ‘Cobra’ unit caused a parliamentary inquiry from the opposition. Chancellor Nehammer reacted with annoyance.
This is what allegedly happened: On March 13th, two bodyguards of Chancellor Karl Nehammer and his family got into a staff car that was parked in front of the chancellor’s apartment. The two bodyguards were drunk. While trying to get out of the parking spot, the driver caused considerable damage to two cars. The two drunken bodyguards tried to track down the owners of the cars they damaged. When this failed, they became aggressive, presumably towards another police officer who was assigned to protect the property. This officer then called for reinforcements, and the bodyguards were taken into police custody.
At first glance (and first reporting) this appeared to be a case of less than exemplary behavior on the part of the bodyguards, but hardly front-page news. The media did not report the incident at all until three weeks later, on April 1st, and initial reports emphasizing that the whole incident had occurred during “after hours” or “in the spare time” of the bodyguards. But a few days later, the bombshell burst. The security spokesman for the Social Democrats (SPÖ), Reinhold Einwallner, submitted a parliamentary inquiry to Chancellor Nehammer, quoting in full an anonymous letter received from a “frustrated Cobra officer.” In this letter, the officer raises serious accusations against politicians and VIPs, especially against the Nehammer family. The anonymous author describes structural abuse of Cobra officers by VIPs who would exploit the bodyguards for “favors.” The letter’s main criticism of Nehammers is an undue “closeness” between the Nehammers, especially Mrs. Nehammer, and their bodyguards. The letter asserts that the Nehammers’ bodyguards routinely experience highly unprofessional and overly friendly interactions, with Mrs. Nehammer not only critically selecting who was allowed to join the “pool” of bodyguards but also greeting her bodyguards with “kisses left, kisses right.”
This lack of professional distance makes it ever more difficult for bodyguards to reject frequent personal requests, above all from Mrs. Nehammer. As just a few examples, officers were asked to take Corona PCR tests from the Nehammers’ children to a drop-off point, handle trips to the post office, and even take suits to the laundry and pick them up again. According to the anonymous letter, the Nehammers regularly left bodyguards to act as babysitters while the couple wined, dined, and partied late into the night.
The letter also casts doubt on whether there is actually a protection order in place for the Nehammer family, or whether bodyguard presence at the Nehammer house is a “favor” to the chancellor from the Directorate for Special Forces (DSE).
All this, however revolting, is only the prelude to the real scandal. The anonymous letter claims that the bodyguards involved in the accident were not, in fact, off duty, but that the schedule was adjusted after the fact to create the impression that the incident had taken place outside their duty hours. Supporting this claim, the letter points out that a third officer (protection teams always consist of three officers) was on call at the time of the accident, and his end of duty did not occur until 11:30 p.m. In addition, even if the officers’ actual duty time had ended earlier, duty does not formally end until the staff car has been delivered to headquarters—which, in this case, it had not been.
Based on apparent inside information, the author of the letter sketches a very different picture of the events of March 13th than the widespread media picture. In his version, it was the chancellor’s wife who invited the bodyguards to the apartment for a “drink” in the afternoon. A report by the Kurier confirms this claim, reporting that the driver of the car had “two beers” inside the house, and quotes sources close to the Nehammer family. But according to the anonymous letter the driver was later found to have an alcohol level of 1.2 per mille—higher than can be explained by the two beers of the Kurier version.
Adding to the suspicious situation, the anonymous author claims that the day after the incident, Mrs. Nehammer herself met with the head of the DSE, Bernhard Treibenreif. The letter also implies that the chancellor himself intervened with Director Treibenreif in order to sweep the story under the rug.
Treibenreif’s willingness to help, however, may be for ulterior motives. The author of the letter points out that the post of director of the DSE “is being re-advertised and re-cast due to a restructuring of the Federal Police.” In other words, Treibenreif’s job may be at stake. “Knowing this, one can imagine why Director Bernhard Treibenreif is doing exactly what Chancellor Nehammer is ordering him to,” the anonymous author writes. The situation brings back memories of the case of Kurz confidant Thomas Schmid, who formulated the job description for a directorial post to fit his own profile—a case that is part of the ongoing investigations into the ÖVP corruption scandal.
If the letter is accurate, it provides evidence of a structural abuse of authority by the Chancellor, his family, and prominent members of the DSE, both in the attempted cover-up of the incident on March 13th and in the inappropriate close relationships between the Nehammer family and their bodyguards, and the misappropriation of special units at taxpayer expense.
The Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ) submitted two inquiries dealing with the incident. “We have information that the chancellor’s wife is said to have played a decisive role in the run-up to the accident,” FPÖ MPs Hannes Amesbauer and Christian Hafenecker wrote in the explanation to their inquiry. “In addition, the ÖVP seems to have done everything within its power to completely cover up the incident,” according to the statement of the FPÖ politicians. “Now we expect the chancellor and the minister of the interior to deal with the matter at hand openly and honestly, and hope that the ÖVP does not react as usual: by pursuing and punishing the whistleblowers who made this incident public.”
Reinhard Einwallner of the SPÖ also insisted on answers: “The events surrounding the accident of the drunken bodyguards are in any case worthy of clarification.”
When Chancellor Nehammer spoke on the matter at a press conference on April 4th, he did not answer the questions raised, but instead hid behind emotional outrage at the anonymous letter, which he said had crossed a “red line.” He called it “intolerable” that political opponents would publish security concepts “at the expense of the family.” Nehammer described the published letter as “sad, dramatic, dishonorable,” and he even called the affair “the low point of political debate in Austria.” Instead of trying to clarify the situation, the Ministry of the Interior announced that criminal charges would be filed on the basis of the “false allegations and the resulting security risks.”
FPÖ security spokesman Amesbauer responded: “Was it bad conscience or an attempt to bring ÖVP message control back to life? One thing is certain: Following the hastily organized media statement by Chancellor Karl Nehammer addressing the alcohol accident of his bodyguards, as many questions remain open as before.”
Other opposition politicians also considered Nehammer’s statement insufficient. Christian Deutsch of the SPÖ called Nehammer’s press conference a “bizarre performance,” and Beate Meinl-Reisinger of the economic-liberal NEOS demanded “full clarification” and said the statement was “a farce.”
It remains to be seen whether Nehammer and the ÖVP will be able to ride the scandal out like they have in the past. Some media seem willing to give Nehammar a pass. In a podcast of the Presse, a publication traditionally close to the ÖVP, an expert explained that while some of the behavior described in the letter violated regulations, the formation of close relationships between security officers and the families they guard was nevertheless understandable. An allusion to the Kevin Costner film Bodyguard wrapped up the humorous treatment of the topic.
Wolfgang Fellner’s tabloid magazine Österreich, which is also under indictment in the ÖVP corruption scandal for its involvement in ÖVP-friendly reporting, chose instead to report on Heinz-Christian Strache, who, while he was still party chairman of the FPÖ and vice chancellor, sent his former bodyguard shopping lists and asked him to buy champagne, caviar, and dog food.
Any form of abuse of office is to be condemned in the strongest possible terms. But while former Vice Chancellor Strache resigned from office within 24 hours of the Ibiza video being made public, the Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) is still firmly in the saddle, despite ongoing scandals and being on its third chancellor since the last election. Even if the accusations turn out to be only partially true, this latest scandal shows that corruption and nepotism are still alive and kicking in the ÖVP, even after Sebastian Kurz’s departure.
David Boos is an organist, documentary filmmaker, and writer for The European Conservative and other publications.