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Ex-Telekom Austria bosses undersold property - prosecutors

Source: Reuters - Thu, 9 Jan 2014 14:46 GMT
Author: Reuters
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VIENNA, Jan 9 (Reuters) - A fourth corruption trial involving former Telekom Austria executives opened on Thursday with the former CEO accused of selling a prime property at a knock-down price to the business associate of an acquaintance without due process.

Heinz Sundt and the company's ex-finance chief Stefano Colombo agreed to sell the building that housed its main Vienna switching centre in 2006 for 5.4 million euros ($7.3 million), half its true value, the state prosecutor told the court.

They are charged with breach of trust and face up to five years in jail if found guilty.

Sundt and Colombo pleaded not guilty to the charge over the sale of the 19th century building to then-Austrian railways chief Martin Huber and his wife, who sold it a year later for twice the price.

"I had no responsibility whatsoever for the real-estate business," said Sundt, who was cleared in February for lack of sufficient evidence of charges that he helped manipulate Telekom Austria's share price in 2004.

Telekom Austria, the former state telecoms monopoly, is at the centre of several corruption investigations, of which Thursday's case is the fourth to come to trial.

The others involve illegal party financing and bribery, leading to the company's being dubbed "the political ATM machine" by Austrian media. In one ongoing investigation, the entire OVP conservative party is under suspicion.

No current executives of Telekom Austria, which is claiming for damages in this and other cases, are involved.

Close ties between business and politics have long been the Austrian norm, but a new generation of politicians and prosecutors is slowly changing the culture. What once was seen as good networking is now more often considered corruption.

Huber and his wife Barbara Huber-Lipp also face charges of breach of trust in the trial, as do an architect suspected of backdating a valuation report on the property years later, and two former employees of Telekom Austria's real-estate unit.

All the defendants deny any wrongdoing.

The property at Schillerplatz 4 in central Vienna, now a luxury apartment block, was sold without a tender process after Telekom Austria entered into exclusive negotiations with an acquaintance of Sundt's, the court heard on Thursday.

The acquaintance, a business associate of Huber and his wife, was unable to give evidence in the trial because he suffered a stroke before the sale was completed.

The former head of Telekom Austria's real-estate unit was also unable to appear in court because of a stroke.

Sundt said he had not asked for a valuation report for Schillerplatz 4 because he trusted absolutely the advice of the real-estate chief, who he said had told him the sale was a good deal.

($1 = 0.7353 euros) (Reporting by Georgina Prodhan; Editing by Pravin Char)

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