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Germany’s top banker Ackermann faces retrial

Judges on Wednesday ordered a retrial of Germany’s most prominent banker and five others over large payments to executives during Vodafone PLC’s takeover of rival mobile-phone company Mannesmann AG in 2000.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Judges on Wednesday ordered a retrial of Germany’s most prominent banker and five others over large payments to executives during Vodafone PLC’s takeover of rival mobile-phone company Mannesmann AG in 2000.

The Federal Court of Justice upheld an appeal from prosecutors who had challenged the acquittal of Deutsche Bank AG Chief Executive Josef Ackermann and his co-defendants in 2004.

The retrial in a Duesseldorf state court will subject Deutsche Bank to the disruption of having its CEO attending court sessions while also running the country’s largest bank. It was not immediately clear when proceedings would begin.

Deutsche Bank shares dipped after the announcement but quickly recovered and were trading 0.6 percent higher at 82.29 euros ($98.86) by midday in Frankfurt. The bank had no immediate comment.

Explaining its verdict, the federal court said there was indeed a suspicion that Mannesmann had suffered a breach of trust. Presiding Judge Klaus Tolksdorf said the earlier acquittal was wrong in “few, but quite decisive points.”

In July 2004, a Duesseldorf court found the six defendants not guilty of charges that they illegally engineered payments to executives at Mannesmann after its takeover by Vodafone. The 180 billion euro deal was the largest corporate merger ever at the time.

In all, bonuses and retirement packages of 150 million marks (77 million euros) to executives were approved.

A special severance payment of more than 15 million euros to former Mannesmann CEO Klaus Esser was “unique in its level” in Germany and was not in the interests of the company, federal prosecutor Gerhard Altvater said at an appeal hearing in October.

Ackermann rejects the accusations. The charges relate to his activities on Mannesmann’s board, not at Deutsche Bank, and he did not receive money himself.

Ackermann’s lawyers reacted cautiously. Attorney Eberhard Kempf told n-tv television that he expected the retrial would last only half the time of the original proceedings.

He said the attorneys had spoken with Ackermann, but did not detail the banker’s reaction. “You can safely assume that we had reckoned with all possibilities in advance, and so it was not an astonishing decision that we announced to him,” Kempf said.

However, a German shareholders’ protection group suggested that Ackermann should resign.

“Deutsche Bank is stumbling from one image problem to the next — this cannot continue,” said Juergen Kurz, a representative of the DSW organization. He added that the bank needs to find a solution, “but I don’t think one is possible with Ackermann.”

Ackermann ruffled feathers in Germany earlier this year when the bank announced job cuts at the same time as strong 2004 earnings. The bank also drew criticism this month for freezing a real-estate fund in order to revalue its assets.

At the trial, the Duesseldorf state court acquitted all six defendants of criminal charges of breach of trust or abetting a breach of trust. Ackermann and three others were on Mannesmann’s board at the time; the two other defendants were Mannesmann executives.

Prosecutors had sought a 2½-year prison term for Esser and three years for former board chairman Joachim Funk, saying they had agreed to “illegally enrich themselves” with the deal.

They sought a two-year suspended term for Ackermann and shorter suspended terms for the remaining defendants, former Mannesmann personnel chief Dietmar Droste and two more board members — Juergen Ladberg, an employee representative, and Klaus Zwickel, the retired head of the IG Metall industrial union.

Ackermann’s attorneys argue the payment to Esser was a legitimate reward for increasing the values of the company’s shares leading up to the takeover.

But many questioned the size of the payouts in Germany, where awards of that size are uncommon and top executives’ compensation is generally more modest than in the United States and Britain.