Vienna: A court found a former Austrian interior minister and EU lawmaker guilty of corruption on Monday, rejecting his arguments that he thought British reporters posing as lobbyists were actually US intelligence agents whom he played along with to catch red-handed.
Judge Georg Olschak sentenced Ernst Strasser to a four-year prison term after pronouncing his verdict, at the end of a trial closely followed by the Austrian public as a test of accountability to the law by former senior officials.
Strasser, 56, was charged last year after two British journalists approached him and offered him payment in exchange for his efforts to water down proposed EU legislation. He subsequently gave up his seat and resigned from the centrist People`s Party.
Strasser acknowledged he did not contact Austrian authorities about his suspicions until after he was exposed in April 2010 on camera by the two journalists working for the UK`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 US because it was displeased with the EU parliament`s rejection of proposed anti-terrorist measures.
Olschak called that explanation "among the most adventurous that I have heard in my 29 years of experience" as a judge.
"If corruption starts at the top then there is an acute need for justice to act," he said, in explaining his decision.
Parts of the eight-hour tape of Strasser have been posted on YouTube, showing him 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 defence said the excerpts are out of context and that the complete tape shows Strasser in a more positive light.
Defence lawyer Thomas Karlik said he would appeal.
Karlik, at the start of the trial, did not dispute that Strasser told the two journalists he charged USD 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 had faced a possible maximum sentence of 10 years in prison.
The trial was held amid growing Austrian disillusionment with the country`s politicians, with several senior figures found guilty of economic crimes and most of the established parties the focus of investigations for influence buying, illegal political funding, kickbacks and other alleged wrongdoing.
Of 60 EU legislators approached, three others were captured on film by the reporters suggesting they were ready to peddle influence. Two of the three -- Romania`s Adrian Severin and Spain`s Pablo Zalba Bidegain -- kept their seats. Slovenia`s Zoran Thaler resigned.