The sleepy Flick scandal about political funding has suddenly livened up with the public prosecutors' decision to investigate Chancellor Helmut Kohl. His entourage is far more worried now than it was two weeks ago about charges that he lied in parliamentary testimony. The specific industrial donations in question were small and were not in themselves illegal; the wrongdoing involved was evasion of taxes through laundering of the money as charitable or business (rather than political) spending.
Nor is Dr. Kohl being accused of soliciting improper funds for his conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU). The only thing state prosecutors will be investigating once they open formal proceedings will be whether Kohl lied before federal and state parliamentary committees about his knowledge of the contributions. Kohl was not under oath when he testified before the Bundestag Flick committee or the Rhineland-Pfalz donations committee.
When Otto Schily, a Greens member of Parliament and general thorn in the side of the CDU, filed his suspicions with prosecutors at the beginning of February, the conservatives dismissed this charge as a political stunt. But now that the Koblenz public prosecutor has let it be known that Mr. Schily's preliminary evidence warrants an investigation, Kohl's entourage is running scared.
Government spokesmen deny the allegation and point out that the majority of prosecutors' investigations never end in indictments, let alone convictions. But they fear that the unprecedented investigation of an incumbent chancellor might make some voters think that where there's smoke there's fire -- and might turn them away from the CDU before next January's general election.
The main evidence to be investigated involves testimony by ex-Flick general manager Eberhard von Brauchitsh in his own trial that Kohl's executive assistant Juliane Weber received money for Kohl.
In the past year or so the Flick and other financial scandals had become a ho-hum affair. Initially Economics Minister Otto Lambsdorff got a lot of attention when he had to resign in 1984 to conduct his defense in a political-donations trial that is still going on.
But by the time Kohl's spokesman Peter Boenisch had to resign in 1985 and pay 1 million Deutsche marks ($400,000) tax penalty for unreported side income from an automobile firm, hardly anyone noticed.
Part of the reason for the public apathy over the various payments is the cynical expectation that everyone plays the same game. Certainly all the established parties have been implicated in the laundered donations.
For his part, Kohl has long maintained that industrial donations to political parties are a laudable contribution to democracy, and that it is only West Germany's overzealous laws governing these donations that have led to the present imbroglio. Early in his government he advocated an amnesty for tax offenses connected to political donations -- but his junior coalition Liberal party refused to go along.