Austrian prosecutors search finance minister’s home in bribery probe

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VIENNA, Feb 11 (Reuters) – Austrian prosecutors on Thursday searched the home of Finance Minister Gernot Bluemel, a close ally of Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, on suspicion of bribery involving a gambling company seeking help with foreign taxes.

The investigation into Bluemel and two other unnamed people is part of a wider probe stemming from the infamous Ibiza video sting that led to the collapse in 2019 of a previous coalition government between Kurz’s conservatives and the far-right Freedom Party then led by Heinz-Christian Strache.

At the heart of that wider probe are allegations that government officials and gambling firm Novomatic agreed to appoint a former FPO official as a director of Casinos Austria, a company in which Austria and Novomatic owned stakes, in exchange for gambling licences and other favours for Novomatic.

In Bluemel’s case, the anti-corruption prosecutors’ office said it suspects a manager at an unnamed gambling company offered to donate money to an unspecified political party in exchange for Austrian officials’ help with a potential tax claim against it abroad.

He is suspected of committing bribery and corruption offences, the statement added.

“The accusations are false and easy to disprove,” Bluemel told reporters at a brief news conference on Thursday evening after opposition parties called for him to resign, which he said he would not do.

In an earlier statement, Bluemel said his People’s Party had not accepted donations from gambling companies in general or slot-machine maker Novomatic in particular.

“Austrian companies’ demands abroad are presented to politicians daily and are perfectly normal if they involve securing Austrian jobs,” Bluemel said.

Novomatic also said the accusations were unfounded and it had not given money to any party.

At his news conference Bluemel said that almost four years ago the then-head of Novomatic invited him to a meeting on donating to the People’s Party, and he made clear his party did not accept donations from gambling companies.

Prosecutors searched Bluemel’s home in Vienna as well as other unidentified private and company addresses on Thursday, the anti-corruption prosecutors’ office said. (Reporting by Francois Murphy; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky and Lisa Shumaker)

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