VIENNA — A former Austrian interior minister and EU lawmaker accused of influence peddling pleaded innocent Monday, telling a court he suspected U.S. secret service agents had set him up and that he had played along to catch them red-handed.
On the first day of his trial, Ernst Strasser acknowledged he did not contact Austrian authorities about his suspicions until after he was exposed in April 2010 on camera by two journalists working for the U.K.'s Sunday Times newspaper.
He said he hesitated out of fear that Austrian officials would not believe his concerns that he was under surveillance by the U.S. because it was displeased with the EU parliament's rejection of proposed anti-terrorist measures.
Strasser, 56, was charged after the two journalists posed as lobbyists seeking to water down proposed EU legislation, and subsequently gave up his seat and resigned from the centrist People's Party. Of 60 EU legislators approached, three others were captured on film by the reporters suggesting they were ready to peddle influence.
Parts of the eight-hour tape of Strasser have been posted on YouTube, showing him proudly telling the two reporters that being an EU parliamentarian is a great opportunity "to have my own network, and to use this network for my ...companies." His defense says the excerpts are out of context and that the complete tape shows Strasser in a more positive light.
Defense lawyer Thomas Karlik did not dispute that Strasser told the two journalists he charged 100,000 euros ($130,000) a year for his services. But he said his client was only "doing what thousands of people do daily in Austria, Brussels and worldwide: making contacts and offering to use them." Strasser faces 10 years in prison if found guilty.
The trial comes amid growing Austrian disillusionment with the country's politicians, with most of the established parties currently the focus of investigations for influence buying, illegal political funding, kickbacks and other alleged wrongdoing.
Two of the three legislators caught on camera – Romania's Adrian Severin and Spain's Pablo Zalba Bidegain – kept their seats. Slovenia's Zoran Thaler resigned.