Doing (a Little Too) Well by Doing Good

How 700,000 Euro in Donations Got All Tangled Up and Misplaced in the Wheels of Justice

News | Paul Krauskopf | November 2006

It was just a minor headline embedded between pages and pages of copy on the worsening situation of BAWAGs CEO Elsner. Something about an Austrian celebrity who had donated 17,000€ to a bogus charity – which were later used to buy two motorcycles, or so it was reported in Österreich. The short article ended with the warning that the company and the website were still in use, despite the fact that both the director and his assistant were in prison. Even worse, the article claimed that the accused men were still receiving money originally donated for a good cause, only now it was helping them pay for their legal defense.

The website was indeed still up and surprisingly, even the donation function was still in use. The number of the alleged felon, Günter Oberlaender, also worked, and a middle-aged woman answered the phone.

It was Mrs. Oberlaender, the wife of the imprisoned man. She seemed amazingly calm for what must have been a major shake up.

She was grateful for ringing her up, she said. No other reporters had called to actually speak to her before writing exaggerated shorts based on largely false information. But there did seem to be something undeniably foul about the whole business, she must realise, or otherwise her husband would not still be in jail.

But, she explained, the real reason for the imprisonment was not the acquisition of two motorbikes (they were leased actually, not purchased, and yes, the leasing contract was paid with some of the donated money). The real reason was the opening of two private bank accounts into which money was transferred out of the charitable company’s account – an account into which a total of 700,000€ in financial aid had flown. The charitable account as well as the two private accounts had been instantly frozen by the federal prosecutor. Although in this case, the term "frozen" only referred to the unavailability of the money to Family Oberlaender. For reasons that not even Mrs. Oberlaender could explain, money is still being donated to these accounts as of this writing. Of course the motorbikes were given back to the leasing firm the same day.

After simultaneous searches of the family’s business, as well as their private premises, the Viennese police confiscated documents that would later reveal donated money was missing, even after adding up the money on all known accounts.

Mrs. Oberlaender was not prepared to disclose the total amount of money the police was unable to find in the files. She insisted that no one, not even an external employee (and good friend of Mr. Oberlaender) in charge of the bookkeeping could track the missing money.

As the conversation continued, she would jump back and forth between saying it was her husband and his friend who’d done the bookkeeping, or an external company hired to do the job.

It was an ambiguous situation that Mrs. Oberlaender depicted, filled with contradictions. On the one hand she claimed her husband was entirely innocent, on the other, she reported that he had offered to "return" the missing money to the prosecutor if they would just let him go.

The precarious situation makes Mrs. Oberlaender very uneasy; she wasn’t into this knee-deep but was given enough responsibility to smell if something was cooking. Had she believed there was absolutely nothing wrong about her husbands business, she wouldn’t have been so reluctant to answer a couple of questions specifically targeted at unclear topics. And of course she stands behind her husband. Mrs. Oberlaender has little formal education, no Matura or other. She loves to be outside with horses and did most of the identifying of the families-in-need that were later supported by their charity. She couldn’t tell how many families or how much of the donated money had been turned into hands-on help, but she could provide a list of families she had "recruited."

Future plans had included buying a ranch and horses on the outskirts of Vienna to offer childrens therapy in a fresh natural environment. The ranch itself had been bought with the help of donations, but now with her husband in jail and the accounts frozen, Mrs. Oberlaender has bills piling up on her table and no clue how to pay them. The ranch had been her dream, she could say enough about all the happy kids she would have invited to enjoy the farm with her.

It was a difficult task to separate the information from this loyal country wife into "true" and "not-true" categories. She had not only lost her only job (in an albeit crooked business) but also her husband, at least for the next three years. She gets agitated when directly addressed about her husband’s business affairs, not quite comprehending the intricacies of Austrian corporate law that have put her husband in jail.

"How are we supposed to set up a charitable organization with no money?" she asks. "We had to use the donations to set up a work environment and the logistics to be able to help in the first place." The fact that leasing two motorbikes is not deemed an appropriate direct investment for a charitable company, regardless of the mobility they provide, is something that Mrs. Oberlaender either didn’t want to or simply could not understand.

The website is still up, the function to donate still in use. Did she deliberately not want to take it down or has she no clue how to close down a website? The fact that the sentence was handed down by the judge without taking any kind of statement from Mrs. Oberlaender suggest that the court, at least, believes she just didn’t know.

Called one last time, she informs me that her husband has pleaded guilty and will be imprisoned for at least three years. She thought he’d be home for Christmas. She even asked him if he had something to say for the newspaper that had called her. But all the calls in and out of the prison were taped, there was nothing he wanted to add.

What remains unclear is why the company as such doesn’t have to be closed down. Why is it still possible for unsuspecting people to donate to probable misuse? And what will happen to the money on these accounts?

And we still don’t know how much she knew, but in a sense, with her husband behind bars and her ranch out of reach, what does it matter? Perhaps Österreich was right simply to offer a warning: is a questionable organization to say the least. Your charitable instincts will find a better home elsewhere.

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