UPDATE 1-Germany's Scholz to Testify Over Handling of Multibillion-euro Tax Fraud

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ReutersCredit: Reuters

* Scholz to testify to Hamburg lawmakers over fraud handling

* Case risks undermining Scholz as he faces multiple crises

* Scholz's popularity lags top ministers, SPD party third in polls (Adds polls on popularity, stance of coalition, quotes)

By Sarah Marsh

BERLIN, Aug 19 (Reuters) - German Chancellor Olaf Scholz is to testify in front of lawmakers on Friday over his role as Hamburg mayor in tackling a multibillion-euro tax fraud in a case that threatens to tarnish him even as he battles multiple crises.

In the scheme of "cum-ex" or dividend stripping, banks and investors would swiftly trade shares of companies around their dividend payout day, blurring stock ownership and allowing multiple parties to falsely reclaim tax rebates on dividends.

The loophole, now closed, took on a political dimension in the northern port of Hamburg due to authorities' sluggishness under the mayorship of Scholz at demanding repayment of millions of euros gained under the scheme by local bank Warburg.

Warburg, which plays a big role in Germany's second largest city, eventually paid its tax bill of around 50 million euros ($50.31 million) after the federal finance ministry intervened.

The case threatens to undermine the chancellor even as he is trying to hold his fractious coalition together in the face of public discontent over soaring energy inflation.

His popularity is already lagging that of his economy and foreign ministers, while just 58% of Germans think he is doing a good job compared to an average of around 70% for his predecessor Angela Merkel during her 16 years in office.

His Social Democrat Party (SPD) meanwhile has slipped into third place in polls behind the opposition conservatives and junior coalition partners the Greens.

"It all stinks to high heaven and simply cannot have happened without political influence," Richard Seelmaecker, representative of the opposition conservatives on the committee, told broadcaster NTV.

Scholz, who has dismissed suggestions of any impropriety in his handling of the affair, is due to face a Hamburg parliamentary committee of inquiry investigating the matter in a hearing on Friday from 1400 CET (1200 GMT).

"This has been an issue for two and a half years now," Scholz recently told reporters. "Countless files have been studied, countless people have been heard. The result is always: There has been no political influence."


Finance Minister Christian Lindner, from the junior coalition party, the pro-business Free Democrats, which is also lagging in polls, lent the chancellor his support.

"I have always understood Olaf Scholz to be a person of integrity, whether I was in the opposition or as now in government - and I have no reason to doubt that now," Lindner told the Rheinische Post newspaper.

Prominent Greens have kept quiet on the affair after criticising Scholz about it while in opposition.

Recent headlines that prosecutors probing the scheme in Hamburg discovered 200,000 euros in the safe of a local politician from Scholz's ruling Social Democrats reignited suspicions of political intervention on the bank's behalf.

Scholz has denied any knowledge of this cash or its origin and said he no longer has contact with the lawmaker involved. The lawmaker did not respond to a request for comment.

The chancellor already faced Hamburg lawmakers last year and acknowledged then having a series of meetings with the then chairman of Warburg but said he could not recall details.

"He only admits what can be proven," said Seelmaecker.

One of the prosecutors' recent findings is a discrepancy between the many calendar entries of Hamburg authorities mentioning the Warburg bank and "cum-ex" and the few emails on the topic, Der Spiegel magazine wrote, citing the prosecutors report.

"This suggests a targeted deletion(of emails)," Spiegel cited the report as saying.

A representative for corruption watchdog Transparency International Stephan Ohme said it was simply implausible that Scholz could not remember his discussions with the Warburg chairman.

"Scholz should moreover show what he actively did to tackle Warburg's involvement in Cum-Ex transactions" he told the Funke media group. "It is his political responsibility."

($1 = 0.9939 euros)

(Reporting by Sarah Marsh; Additional Reporting by Hans Seidenstuecker; editing by Grant McCool and Andrew Cawthorne)



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