By Andrea Shalal
BERLIN (Reuters) – The German Defence Ministry, under fire for its use of outside consultants, said on Thursday it is investigating possible misconduct by ministry officials and will shortly publish strict new guidelines for hiring external advisers.
Lawmakers grilled Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen about dozens of irregularities revealed in a scathing internal report by the Federal Audit Office leaked to German media last month about the ministry’s hiring of consultants.
Opposition lawmakers from the pro-business Free Democrats and ecologist Greens threatened a parliamentary investigation unless they received more answers about the widening scandal.
The ministry said it was implementing a wide range of structural measures to prevent further mistakes, and an investigative team “is examining indications about gross personal misconduct by individuals in connection with the awarding of contracts”, said spokesman Jens Flosdorff.
He said it was unclear if the individuals involved had acted for personal gain, or if reported irregularities were the result of carelessness or a too-lax process.
Von der Leyen, a close ally of Chancellor Angela Merkel, is already facing criticism for her leadership style, reliance on outside consultants, and continued gaps in military readiness.
Germany, the leading economy in Europe and a key force in the NATO security alliance, is under pressure from Washington to boost military spending and contribute more to Europe’s defence.
“There are still multiple questions about the extent of the use of external help, about contract award violations, about old-boy networks between the ministry and external parties,” said Greens party member Tobias Lindner, one of those considering initiating a parliamentary inquiry.
Marie-Agnes Strack-Zimmermann, deputy head of the Free Democrats, said von der Leyen’s statements to the committee “raised more questions than they answered.”
Separately, the Berlin prosecutor’s office confirmed on Thursday that it was reviewing an anonymous complaint that the ministry failed to pay proper benefits for external advisers who had essentially worked full-time at the ministry.
The ministry denied it had sought to evade the payments, and said it had asked for a federal review of filing requirements for six individuals on Sept. 25, before the complaint was filed.
Federal auditors estimated that the ministry spends up to 150 million euros a year on outside advisers and personnel, a sum ministry sources say is closer to 80 million euros a year.
They also fault the ministry for improperly hiring outside help under an umbrella IT contract, something the ministry blames on a mistaken assessment by experts at its procurement agency and the failure to properly document the process.
(Reporting by Andrea Shalal; Editing by Mark Heinrich)