German minister under fire after official car stolen on holiday
Pressure is building on Social Democratic Health Minister Ulla Schmidt to explain why she had her driver travel the 2,653 kilometres from Berlin to the Costa Blanca in Spain at public expense.
Berlin -- With German elections only two months away, a minister found herself embroiled in a political scandal on Monday after she took her official Mercedes on holiday to Spain -- where it was stolen.
Pressure is building on Social Democratic (SPD) Health Minister Ulla Schmidt to explain why she had her driver travel the 2,653 kilometres (1,648 miles) from Berlin to the Costa Blanca in Spain at public expense.
Georg Schirmbeck, from Chancellor Angela Merkel's centre-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU), said the minister's actions sent the wrong message during the country's worst economic downturn since World War II.
"It is a scandalous waste of taxpayers' money that this SPD politician sent her official limousine and chauffeur all the way across Europe to her Spanish holiday spot," he told Monday's edition of the Neue Osnabruecker Zeitung.
The affair is highly unwelcome for chancellor candidate Frank-Walter Steinmeier, whose SPD is trailing Merkel's conservatives by a double-digit margin ahead of the September 27 poll and shows little sign of closing the gap.
It was not immediately clear what consequences Schmidt might face but her spokeswoman hit back on Monday, saying that the minister had acted within government guidelines for official vehicles.
"Like all cabinet members, the minister for health has at her continuous disposal an official car with a driver for official and private use," said spokeswoman Dagmar Kaiser.
"Everything was done correctly, everything is covered by regulations... clearly private journeys will be settled privately."
The spokeswoman also said it was more economical to drive her official car the long distance to Spain than to hire a car suitable for official use when she arrived at her holiday location.
"The minister has acted according to the law and after her holiday, she will, as she always does, calculate everything and present everything to parliament," she added.
The spokeswoman said the minister had at least two official functions while she was in Spain: a meeting with the mayor of Alicante and a visit to Germans living in the town, which is a popular destination for German holidaymakers.
But Reiner Holznagel from the taxpayers' union, a pressure group, accused her of wasting public funds.
"The fact remains that the car had to go from Berlin to Alicante and that costs a lot of money," Holznagel told rolling news channel N24.
The press has also seized on the affair with the story splashed over the front pages of most German papers.
"Why does the health minister need her official car on holiday?" asked mass circulation Bild.
Holznagel pointed out that if thieves had not broken into her driver's apartment and made off with the key to the Mercedes S-class, the affair would likely never have come to the public's attention.
The scandal comes at a bad time for the SPD which is languishing near record lows in the polls.
On July 19, a survey showed some 80 percent of Germans expect Merkel to cruise to a second term in the elections, where she hopes to ditch the SPD as her coalition partner and instead form a government with the liberal Free Democrats.
One Free Democrat member of parliament, Patrick Doering, said the affair would come back to haunt the SPD at the election.
"If need be, we need to think about how we can punish ministers. But hopefully, the voters will do that on September 27," he said.