René Benko before committee: Signa owner avoids sensitive questions

René Benko before committee: Signa owner avoids sensitive questions

Many had hoped for information about René Benko’s activities in the Signa Group from the investigative committee. But the ex-billionaire didn’t do much more than be present in Vienna.

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René Benko didn’t even try to get his hopes up. “I ask for your understanding that I will not address the content of most of the questions,” said the ex-billionaire in an investigative committee in the Austrian Parliament on Wednesday.

Instead of providing answers, Benko often involved the U-Committee in lengthy procedural discussions during his questioning and consulted with his lawyer for minutes on almost every question. The committee is investigating the alleged preferential treatment of politically well-connected billionaires by the conservative ÖVP chancellor party and by financial authorities. Benko didn’t talk about how his own company, Signa Holding, recently went bankrupt – but he didn’t have to, because that wasn’t the committee’s mandate.

Nevertheless, it was always striking how strongly Benko separated the topics from each other. Benko was clearly careful not to give any indication of the actual position of power he held in the Signa Group. Officially, Benko had already withdrawn from all management positions a decade ago, and since then he has only formally led the advisory board. But company insiders and almost everyone who had anything to do with Signa describe the founder’s role as the one who had the final say on all important decisions.

René Benko denies “organ function”.

At his hearing, for example, Benko asserted that he “definitely did not hold any executive function at any of the relevant larger Signa companies” during the period covered by the investigative committee. In response to objections from several MPs, he rejected all suggestions that he was the central decision-making authority in the group even without the formal role.

The question of whether Benko was the “de facto managing director” at Signa is likely to be of great importance for the criminal investigation, but also for claims for damages from previous investors. There are such claims in the hundreds of millions from Signa donors in the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, including against Benko personally.

Former chancellor supposedly hired because of competence

In addition, the Signa founder demonstratively downplayed the role of high-ranking politicians who joined his company after their political careers. Former Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz took part as a guest in a larger event at a Signa property on Lake Garda a few months before his appointment as chancellor in the summer of 2017, Benko said.

The 47-year-old entrepreneur said that Kurz stayed on Benko’s yacht even after he retired from politics. Not more. Kurz and Alfred Gusenbauer, also a former Federal Chancellor, only came to Signa because of their expertise as consultants or – in Gusenbauer’s case – even as chairman of the supervisory boards of the most important group companies.

A statement that led MPs to smugly ask what contact the former Chancellor Kurz had with the real estate business.

Source: Stern

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