By Michelle FITZPATRICK
More than two years after the dramatic collapse of German digital payments firm Wirecard, ex-CEO Markus Braun and two former managers will go on trial for fraud.
Here are key things to know about the scandal, which has drawn comparisons with the massive accounting fraud that brought down US energy giant Enron in the early 2000s.
– Porn and gambling –
Founded in 1999 near Munich, Wirecard started out processing online payments for porn and gambling websites. The stable stream of revenues helped it survive the dotcom crisis.
As more savoury forms of online commerce ramped up over the years, Wirecard’s star rose.
With Braun in charge from 2002, the company grew at breakneck speed, expanding its services into banking and buying up smaller payment companies, especially in Asia.
– DAX darling –
In 2018, Wirecard elbowed traditional lender Commerzbank out of the blue-chip DAX index, reinforcing its reputation as a rare German success story in the booming fintech sector.
At its peak, the company was valued at more than 24 billion euros ($25 billion), outweighing even Deutsche Bank.
But Wirecard’s share price suffered when a series of articles in the Financial Times in 2019 alleged accounting irregularities at Wirecard’s Asian units.
In June 2020, the company admitted to auditor EY that 1.9 billion euros in cash meant to be held in two Philippine accounts likely didn’t exist.
Wirecard’s share price tanked by 99 percent. It became the first DAX company to go bust and was booted off the index soon after.
– Web of deceit –
Wirecard stands accused of inflating earnings through fictitious transactions involving a complex web of subsidiaries and partner companies.
German prosecutors say Braun and his co-defendants presented inaccurate financial results for 2015-2018 by including revenues from so-called third party acquirers (TPAs) — businesses that processed payments for Wirecard where it lacked its own license to operate.
But revenues from these TPA companies in Dubai, the Philippines and Singapore “did not actually exist”, prosecutors say.
An FT investigation found that TPA firms accounted for around half of Wirecard’s reported revenues and a large chunk of its profits. But an address for one such firms led to a family home in the Philippines. Another was a Manila bus company.
FT journalist Dan McCrum said that’s when he knew Wirecard was faking it. “None of it’s real. It’s just an incredible bluff,” he said in a Netflix documentary.
– German blind spot –
The Wirecard revelations sparked fierce criticism of Germany’s market regulator Bafin, which failed to spot the trickery despite suspicions raised by journalists and shortsellers.
In fact, when the FT’s articles wreaked havoc on Wirecard’s stock price, Bafin’s response was to impose a temporary ban on shorting Wirecard shares.
The watchdog even filed criminal complaints against two FT journalists, claiming market manipulation. The complaints were dropped after Wirecard collapsed.
“Many didn’t want to believe that fraudsters were at work at Wirecard,” Volker Bruehl, a professor at the Center for Financial Studies in Frankfurt, told AFP.
Bafin has since undergone a major shake-up, with a new president at the helm and tougher oversight powers.
Wirecard’s auditor EY also came under scrutiny, having signed off on the firm’s accounts for a decade. EY now faces legal action from Wirecard shareholders.
– Stranger than fiction –
The Wirecard saga has spawned a slew of articles, books, documentaries and a film starring popular German actor Christoph Maria Herbst as Braun, the geeky Wirecard boss with a penchant for black turtlenecks.
In the Netflix documentary “Skandal! Bringing Down Wirecard”, journalist McCrum chronicles his dogged pursuit of the story, which finally broke wide open when a whistleblowing ex-employee handed him a cache of leaked documents.
But with former COO Jan Marsalek still on the run, perhaps the most gripping part of the Wirecard tale remains untold.
Braun has painted fellow Austrian Marsalek as the mastermind behind the fraud, and himself as an unknowing victim.
With his connections to Russian intelligence agencies and his one-time bid to assemble a Libyan militia, the party-loving Marsalek remains shrouded in mystery.