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Real estate: Benko in the U-Committee: Difficult answers to the political network

Real estate: Benko in the U-Committee: Difficult answers to the political network

His empire collapsed in a very short time. Since the demise of his Signa Group, former billionaire Benko has been a scarce presence. He now faces punishment for his silence before a committee.

“How did it come about that you were invited on this trip?” asked Austrian Green MP Nina Tomaselli. “I can’t remember,” replied René Benko in an investigative committee of the Austrian parliament.

In 2018, the founder of the real estate and trading group Signa was part of the delegation of the then Chancellor and ÖVP boss Sebastian Kurz during his visit to Abu Dhabi. One purpose of the trip: a stake from the local sovereign wealth fund Mubadala in Signa Prime, the pearl of Benko’s former real estate empire. On the last day of the U-Committee about the presumably close relationship between the ÖVP, financial authorities and billionaires, the questioning of the 47-year-old became a very tough affair.

“I ask for your understanding that I will not address most of the questions in terms of content,” said Benko, dampening hopes for deeper insights right at the start of the five-hour session. There are many complaints and allegations against the investor in connection with the collapse of the Signa Group. By making statements to the committee, he could incriminate himself legally.

Shortly there was Benko’s yacht and property on Lake Garda

Benko, who appeared largely confident, involved the investigative committee in lengthy procedural discussions and consulted with his lawyer for minutes on almost every question. Benko was repeatedly questioned about his relationship with former Chancellor and ÖVP leader Sebastian Kurz.

A few months before his appointment as chancellor in the summer of 2017, Kurz attended a major event as a guest at a Signa property on Lake Garda, Benko said. Kurz also stayed on Benko’s yacht after his retirement from politics, the businessman said. Sebastian Kurz was hired as a Signa consultant after his retirement from politics, among other things, due to his good international contacts.

Benko refused to answer questions about the tax classification of a Signa private jet, tax debts and possible political agreements regarding Signa’s media holdings, citing extensive investigations by the economic and corruption prosecutor. When Benko then refused to make statements about alleged prominent guests in a luxury chalet, the committee chairman announced that he would apply to the court for a coercive fine of up to 1,000 euros for Benko.

Before his questioning, Benko walked past the numerous journalists into the meeting room without saying a word. He came accompanied by his lawyer and plainclothes police officers. The Austrian Parliament had requested the support of the Interior Ministry after the Signa founder had previously absented himself from the committee twice. The economic decline of the Signa Group, which had also expanded significantly in Germany in recent years, was not formally on the committee’s agenda.

Insolvency proceedings are likely to take at least five years

At the same time as the ex-billionaire was questioned, a court hearing in Innsbruck highlighted the situation in the Signa founder’s former sphere of influence. In the bankruptcy proceedings against the Benko family private foundation, a total of 2.3 billion euros in creditors’ claims were registered, of which only 49.4 million euros were recognized, said bankruptcy administrator Herbert Matzunski. This mainly affects foreign investment companies that have made their funds available to Signa Group companies, it said. The private foundation filed for bankruptcy on its own initiative at the end of March.

“There is no prospect of generating assets so quickly. It remains to be seen how valuable the investments are. Some of these come from the insolvent Signa Group. The investments may therefore be worthless,” Matzunski explained.

According to the insolvency administrator, the foundation’s bankruptcy proceedings will probably take at least five years. It involves examining a wide variety of payment flows – a “mammoth task” given that over 1,000 companies in Austria and Germany are involved. In any case, audits are pending regarding the loans granted and the cash flows in the Signa Group.

Malice from the FPÖ about Benko

According to media reports, the state fund Mubadala is one of the plaintiffs who have been particularly affected. The investors from the United Arab Emirates want around one billion euros back. With regard to the police escort during the appearance before the investigative committee and the looming long-term legal dispute, FPÖ MP Christian Hafenecker said smugly: “A feeling that he may have to get used to.”

Source: Stern

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