BERLIN (AFP) — The German government said Saturday that it paid an informer to get Liechtenstein bank details on a multi-billion-euro tax evasion scandal that has rocked the country's business elite.
After one top company chief resigned and with hundreds of wealthy Germans now reportedly under suspicion, a bank in the principality that has built its reputation on banking secrecy said German authorities were working from a list of its clients stolen by an employee in 2002.
Finance Minister Peer Steinbrueck approved the payment to the informant, his department said in a statement, without confirming a Der Spiegel magazine report that five million euros (7.3 million dollars) was handed over.
Steinbrueck "was kept informed of the budgetary consequences and gave his approval to the payment" to the secret informed, a ministry statement said.
The minister "had no knowledge of the details of the action undertaken nor the accounts and the names," said the statement.
Deutsche Post chairman Klaus Zumwinkel resigned on Friday after it was revealed that he was under investigation and authorities have confirmed that hundreds more "high end" wage earners face a similar tax evasion inquiry.
Press reports said 900 search warrants had been executed this weekend and that several billion euros could be involved.
A finance ministry spokesman said on Friday that the suspects were "especially people whose revenues are at the high end of the scale."
Der Spiegel magazine said the scandal came to light after investigators handed over five million euros to an informer who contacted the BND secret service in early 2006.
Without naming sources, the weekly said the BND and North Rhine-Westphalia state tax inspectors worked together to verify the documents. It said the payment was made for information on those involved in the tax fraud and secret instructions from Liechtenstein on how to hide the flow of money.
Liechtenstein's LGT bank group announced that it appeared the German authorities seemed to be working from a list of its clients stolen in 2002.
LGT spokesman Hans-Martin Uehlinger said the list would contain "several hundred names," adding, "we are going to warn all our clients who are on this list."
The bank said Friday that "sensitive documents" had been stolen in 2002 by an employee of its subsidiary LGT-Treuhand, who had been tried the following year.
The bank thought that all the material had been returned but realised in 2007 that client data might have been "passed on illegally to third parties."
The tax fraud has become a national scandal since a prosecutor in the western city of Bochum announced that Deutsche Post head Zumwinkel was suspected of involvement in tax fraud.
Zumwinkel left Deutsche Post and also quit as chairman of the supervisory board of Deutsche Telekom. He told Bild newspaper in an interview published on Saturday that he would cooperate with the investigation.
The fraud has been widely condemned by German leaders and could be raised in talks when Liechtenstein Prime Minister Otmar Hasler meets Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin this week, her spokesman said.
Economy Minister Michael Glos called on business leaders to adopt ethical behaviour and get rid of their bad habits, in an interview to appear in the Bild am Sonntag paper Sunday.
They should "be aware of their function as a model for society," he said. "Otherwise our social market economy will no longer be credible."
Der Spiegel, in its latest edition to appear Monday, quoted Interior Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble as saying, "These people are destroying everything.
"When the elite do not understand that they must respect the law, it is serious."
"The economic elites are undermining the system," Finance Minister Steinbrueck said in an interview with Die Zeit.
LGT's Internet site describes it as "The Wealth and Asset Management Group of the Princely House of Liechtenstein."
The principality, along with Andorra and Monaco, is viewed as an uncooperative tax haven by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development because of its banking secrecy.
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