When I met Oliver Schröm at the Berlin offices of Correctiv.org, the investigative journalism non-profit he co-founded in 2014, I was his third interview of the day.
It’s been like that, he told me, with a trace of outrage in his voice, since news broke last December that he’s being investigated by prosecutors in Hamburg in connection with a series of stories he reported on a tax fraud scheme.
I asked him to start at the beginning. “It was the fall of 2013,” he told me. He was working as the head of the news magazine Stern’s investigative reporting department.
A whistleblower contacted him to allege that Carsten Maschmeyer, longtime host of a Shark Tank-style reality show called The Lion’s Den (Höhlen der Löwe), had been involved in a scheme to defraud the German state. It was enough to warrant a cover story, and Stern broke the allegations against Maschmeyer (who denies any wrongdoing) on the 15th of April, 2014.
The scheme Schröm had come across is conservatively estimated, over decades, to have cost European taxpayers at least 55 billion Euros. It has become known as CumEx, or alternatively, CumCum. (The word “cum” is simply Latin for “with,” while the “ex” refers to the fact that the financial products involved are traded at a certain juncture in their lives in order to get the state to issue bankers and investors tax rebates on taxes that had never been paid.)
The scheme, which is steeped in the kind of gnostic complexity that has long protected the industry from greater outrage, wasn’t new. Tax authorities had known that there was a loophole since at least 1992, and news articles detailed the practice as early as 1994. But the scope of the transactions, and the systematic way in which they were used to defraud European taxpayers, remained obscure, even after news reports of Maschmeyer’s alleged involvement.
After his first cover story on CumEx, Schröm was contacted by, “a very, very prominent attorney,” who was working for J. Safra Sarasin, a private bank based in Switzerland that had facilitated the transactions. The attorney said that if Schröm and Stern didn’t stop reporting on the tax fraud, they’d bring criminal charges against him. “We published the next story three weeks later,” he told me.
Shortly afterwards, he learned that two German citizens who worked in Switzerland had been arrested and were in jail on suspicion of whistleblowing. He also learned that the State’s Attorney in Zurich had opened an investigation into him for industrial espionage. Schröm was advised by his Swiss lawyer to avoid entering the country, but he continued to follow the case there from afar, and his interest in the scheme only deepened.
J. Safra Sarasin and Maschmeyer had, it turned out, been only a small part of a cast of investors, bankers, accountants, and lawyers who conspired to defraud European governments far beyond Germany. Schröm and his colleagues helped to organize an investigative reporting team, spread across different newsrooms but working in tandem, that would include 38 journalists from 12 countries.
In a 2018 story Schröm, in conjunction with colleagues, also accused a prosecutor in Zürich of pursuing the case against the whistleblowers who were indicted alongside him in 2014 with excessive zeal—denying one whistleblower medical care except for a powerful opioid as he was intensively interrogated for six months.
They confronted the Zurich DA with the story on March 19, 2018. On that same day, Schröm says, the DA wrote to his prosecutor counterpart in Hamburg and formally requested that they charge him with “Instigation to Betrayal of Trade Secrets” [Anstiftung zum Verrat von Betriebsgeheimnissen]. He didn’t find out until eight months later, when a source called him to tell him that he had just been questioned in connection with the charges.
CumEx-files.com, the website the journalists launched to present their collaboration, is slick and engaging. Every German paper ran a story on the revelations it presented. Every nightly news show did a segment, every radio program, and every magazine covered it. But somehow, the story never really broke.
“Just mathematically, every German should have heard the words ‘Cum-Ex’ and ‘55 Billion,’” Schröm says. But the outrage on social media on the October day last year when the site went live was reserved for a debate concerning a Palestinian-German politician who had been photographed wearing a Rolex.
In Denmark and in France, according to Schröm, the reaction had been different. But Germans largely shrugged their shoulders. Maybe, after the Panama Papers and the Paradise Papers, after VW’s emissions scandal and the 2008 financial crisis, Germans just can’t be shocked by the transgressions of the ultra-wealthy.
The charges against Schröm may well turn out to have been a substantial misstep. Johannes Weberling, Honorary Professor of Media Law at the Europa University Viadrina in Frankfurt am Oder, says they have little chance of success, and could even lead to civil and criminal charges against the bankers who brought them in the first place.
When I asked the State’s Attorneys in Zurich and Hamburg about the proceedings, they insisted that they were powerless, bound by the law to investigate any accusation in a criminal case. While Weberling concurs that prosecutors must investigate any allegations of criminal misconduct, regardless of whether they were levied by foreign prosecutors, private individuals, or corporations, he also pointed out that the scope and urgency of their investigation was at their own discretion.
But the charges seem to be having another effect. When I asked Schröm if he was frustrated by the response to the story, he told me that he had been, but that, since the prosecutor in Hamburg began investigating him, he’s been more optimistic.
Finally, he feels, through the campaign against him, anger about the CumEx trades is starting to grow.
Correction: An earlier version of this story referred imprecisely to Sarasin, a Swiss bank. It has been corrected to note that, after a takeover, the bank in question is J. Safra Sarasin.