Court Donations

Court Donations

In recent years, defendants in Germany have paid hundreds of millions of Euros to close criminal proceedings. Judges and prosecutors hand out the largest portion of this money – with hardly any oversight. This lack of transparency makes the system susceptible to corruption, says a spokesman for the senator of justice in Hamburg.

von Jonathan Sachse

    The German judiciary hands out millions of Euros in settlement payments to close criminal proceedings or to end investigations. The money is supposed to primarily benefit projects that seek to prevent crime; helping victims or former criminals. But does that really happen? In reality, millions are distributed without transparency. The payments are not centrally collected, data is not systematically gathered and there is next to no oversight.

    Judges, prosecutors and hundreds of millions of Euros are left to themselves. Only on rare occasions is the system brought to light, such as when Bernie Ecclestone paid 100 million US-Dollars to buy himself out of criminal proceedings at a Munich court. The Süddeutsche Zeitung wrote at the time: „If an offender pays enough money, the problem is gone.“

    For the first time, CORRECTIV has gathered all available facts on this flow of money from German courts. And is publishing this data in an extensive database. Here we find thousands of associations that have received money. From Flensburg to Munich. From Aachen to Görlitz. These include numerous associations that have little to do with offender-victim mediation or crime prevention.

    One question arises upon a closser look into the database: are judges really acting in the public interest? Or do they use money from their proceedings to support the private economic interests of their colleagues, friends, and relatives?

    Give us a hand. Look into our database. Do you see anything suspicious? Associations where judges are members? Write to us or your local newspaper. Make your concerns public.

    Below, a concrete example shows why this judicial money flow would benefit from more transparency.

    One entry in the „Judicial Donations“ database refers to the association Memnon which received 62 000 Euros in the past three years alone.

    What’s significant: this club from Munich has nothing to do with crime prevention or the protection of minors. But its board contains several judges.

    For years Memnon e.V. has received money from the Bavarian judiciary. With this it finances an excavation in Egypt. The lucrative support came through a judge – Ursula Lewenton.

    Lewenton visited Egypt in 2002 and stayed in the German house in Luxor. There, archaeologists are excavating the largest temple in the country, the memorial for Pharaoh Amenhotep III. During her visit the Munich judge met Hourig Sourouzian, the excavation director. The two women got along well. The excavation director needed more money for her work. Lewenton knew where money could be found: she worked at the Munich Upper State Court, a place where treasures are frequently distributed.

    Back in Munich the judge got to work. She founded the association Memnon. It was designed as a vehicle to collect money from the judiciary and to transfer these funds to support excavations in Egypt.

    This type of fundraising is not a crime. But it remains questionable when judges finance a former judge’s association.

    Several months after Lewenton went into retirement she approached her former colleagues at courts and in prosecutor’s offices. She distributed flyers and home-made promotional videos from her visits to Egypt.

    The judge’s strategy worked. On numerous occasions judges and prosecutors decided that Memnon should receive the money when defendants bought themselves out of criminal proceedings.

    Where does the money come from? „Prosecutor’s office Munich 1, prosecutor’s office Munich 2, Ingolstadt“, says Lewenton. All are courts and prosecutor’s offices where the founder of Memnon is well known.

    Between 2007 and 2013 Memnon received 89 335 Euros from the judiciary. This can be seen in documents from the Munich Upper State Court which detail payments to nonprofit organizations. In the previous years, even more money went from the courts to the former judge’s association. Lewenton does not want to say the exact amount – for privacy reasons. And the courts don’t know because the documents were destroyed. „Data that is older than two years is deleted“, says a spokesperson for the Bavarian ministry of justice. Nobody says how much money Memnon really received.

    Two other judges are among the association’s founding members. Both are still active. Eva Spangler is the presiding judge at the Upper State Court in Munich. Sibylle Dworazik has been the president of the Ingolstadt State Court for several years. Lewenton says that the two judges have not arranged payments to Memnon themselves. They do not want to create „a wrong impression.“ Spangler and Dworazik also told CORRECTIV that they themselves never gave money from proceedings to Memnon themselves.

    Franz Schindler (SPD), head of the Bavarian Parliamentary Committee on Legal Affairs, finds this situation objectionable. „A former judge is basically having her retirement hobby financed.“

    Judge Lewenton says she did not use „private“ connections, only connections among colleagues. She says that she always contacted the head of an authority in an „official“ fashion. She says, „I have the advantage of having contacts.“

    At the request of CORRECTIV the Bavarian ministry of justice investigated the matter. But the highest state authority did not investigate which judges or prosecutors gave money to Memnon. Instead, the ministry spoke to Lewenton, the founder of the association. The former judge reiterated her position: no judge who was also a member of her association had settlement fees transferred to it. That was enough for ministry investigators to close their internal investigation. Their conclusion: there was no „wrongdoing by members of the judiciary.“


    When criminal proceedings are closed in exchange for a settlement fee, judges and prosecutors can give the fee to a nonprofit organization. Judges can independently decide who receives the money. In recent years such cases have amounted to hundreds of millions of Euros transferred largely without scrutiny. In 2013 judges and prosecutors handed out at least 80 million Euros; estimations are even higher.

    Where do these high amounts come from? Martin Wenning-Morgenthaler, spokesperson for the national board of the ‘New Justices Association’ doesn’t think that judges think about a prosecution from a financial point of view. Looking at the defendants on the contrary he sees an interest to get „out of the media as fast as possible“ – especially for prominent defendants. Facing a prison sentence these people prefer to pay a fine, says Wenning-Morgenthaler

    According to CORRECTIV’s investigation, numerous payments are never recorded. For example, in Bavaria associations are required to report to the judiciary how much money they receive. Nobody checks whether the numbers are correct. Nobody finds out if they forgot to file a report. And if a judge chooses an association that is not on a central list, the payment is not registered, much less controlled. In theory, judges could give all the settlement fees to their private bowling clubs – and nobody would notice. Nobody knows how much money German judges and prosecutors really hand out every year and where it goes.

    This data collection gap „makes the system prone to corruption“, says a spokesperson for the judicial authority in Hamburg. It is a question of self-regulation. Can we assume that judges will be prudent just because it is part of their professional ethics? Do the people who are most familiar with the system end up profiting from it?

    Judges should justify in writing why they give money to an organization. That would foster „judicial independence“ and limit possibilities for corrupt behavior. This is what the Lower Saxony State Auditors Office wrote in 2009 after a routine inspection. The state government subsequently organized courses of further training to prevent corruption. However, they did not change the system that makes corruption possible.

    In 2014 German judges are still not required to justify their allocation of settlement fees. The Federal Audit Office referred CORRECTIV’s inquiry to the states. But at the state level most Upper State Courts and ministries of justice only collect data on settlement fees, but do not check the accuracy. If anything, the State Auditors Offices only offer suggestions. Millions of Euros remain without oversight.

    In the CORRECTIV-database we find further examples of questionable donations, including the Friends of the Westerwald Train (Search: „Westerwälder Eisenbahnfreunde“), hunting clubs and local heritage associations, carnival associations and large-scale construction projects. Time after time we wonder whether these organizations used the money for crime prevention.

    Associations that wish to receive settlement fees from judges and prosecutors can have themselves registered on official lists at courts. These lists are supposed to help authorities make decisions. But the lists are long and selections appear to be arbitrary. For example, the Karlsruhe Upper State Court lists almost 600 organizations. This includes the German Taxi Foundation. In most states, thousands of organizations are on these lists. Many never receive any money.

    There is no central record in Germany of who receives money and who doesn’t. While associations in Bavaria only have to report the donations they receive, Hamburg has a stricter system. The authorities have learned that blind trust and lack of transparency among judicial officers can lead to corruption. In the early 70s a „fee-milking system“ was uncovered. The Bund gegen Alkohol und Drogen im Straßenverkehr (BADS; Association Against Alcohol and Drugs in Traffic) was examined. The suspicion: judges and prosecutors closed criminal proceedings in exchange for payments to BADS and later gave talks at BADS for significant fees.

    When the case became public the authorities in Hamburg changed their system. Now officials are not supposed to transfer money directly to organizations, but specify a general area of support. A committee of judges, prosecutors and welfare authorities then distributes the money among organizations. If an association wants to receive support, it must submit an application every year specifying the required sum and intended purpose. This system costs time and money. Two people in Hamburg are tasked with managing the fund.

    But despite the complex system, not all payments are registered: some judges simply refuse to use the system. Judges are independent. „We can only promote the fact that this is a good system“, says Holger Schatz, head of the Hamburg penal authority. Schatz cannot force the judges to act transparently. There is no data on how many judges use the distribution system.

    Most states do not publicize the judicial donations. Baden-Württemberg does not even have a central registry to record which organizations receive money. It is difficult to determine which court or which prosecutor’s office made a specific donation. The names of the judges and prosecutors usually remain secret.

    Our database includes the available data. We have documented donations from courts in every state. For example some data from Baden-Württemberg and Hesse is missing. In Baden-Württemberg the authorities only register the three organizations which received the most donations. The Hesse ministry of justice sent us data for 2011, but has so far has not released data for the following years.

    CORRECTIV demands:

    The intransparent system of settlement fee distribution in Germany must be abolished. Judges and prosecutors should not be able to arbitrarily decide which associations receive money.

    Instead, all money from out-of-court settlements should go directly to the state treasuries. The state parliaments can then decide how to use the money – this is a tested and democratically legitimated system of fund allocation. The parliaments can set up verifiable requirements under which the justice ministries can distribute money among associations. This prevents suspicion of corruption.

    Prosecutors are civil servants. Judges have the same legal status as civil servants and are also paid by the state. Why should these judges manage unsupervised funds of money? Normal state employees do not receive millions they can distribute among their favorite organizations at their own discretion.

    Everyone now has the possibility to check whether donations are reasonable – or whether millions were wasted.

    We ask you to help us foster transparency. Do you know associations that have close links with judges and prosecutors? Have you found organizations that do not act in the public interest? Could funds be misused? Enter the name of your city or community and see for yourself who received money.

    If an organization attracts your attention, tell us or contact your local newspaper. We or our colleagues can investigate which court or judge handed out the money and confirm or dispel any suspicions.

    If you want to share sensitive information with us you can use our anonymous upload portal.

    In the case of Bernie Ecclestone, 99 million Dollars went to the state treasury and one million to a children’s hospice foundation. This payment is not included in our database because it was made in 2014 – our data comprises the years 2011 to 2013.

    In Charge: David Schraven

    Editorial Staff: Jonathan Sachse / Daniel Drepper

    Database Development: Stefan Wehrmeyer

    Support for the collection of the data: Anja Perkuhn

    Support through the Seminyak-Scholarship.

    Header Animation: Ivo Mayr

    Art Direction: Thorsten Franke / mediaPolis

    Pictures of the excavation at the temple in Luxor: Memnon-Projekt, Deutsches Archäologisches Institut

    Realisation: Mr. Jet Lag