Deutsche Bank Legal Woes Persist as Fitschen Fraud Trial Begins

Just days after Deutsche Bank AG was fined $2.5 billion for manipulating Libor, Co-Chief Executive Officer Juergen Fitschen and four former managers go on trial for fraud.

Fitschen is scheduled to appear in a Munich court Tuesday to stand trial on charges related to allegations the bank lied during litigation over the collapse of the late Leo Kirch’s media empire.

“The case is extraordinary not only because of the celebrity of the accused,” said Frank Saliger, a professor of law at Tuebingen University. “Litigation fraud is a decades-old crime, a sort of bread-and-butter offense for any prosecutor -- just not with such a collection of suspects. The crime usually only occurs in circles where money is tight.”

Fitschen and co-CEO Anshu Jain, who isn’t in the case, are trying to overcome investor skepticism on their ability to revive profit amid rising legal costs and weak capital buffers. In the biggest overhaul since taking charge three years ago, on Monday the bank said it plans to sell its consumer unit Postbank and shrink the securities business to cut costs.

Fitschen was charged along with ex-CEOs Rolf Breuer and Josef Ackermann last year with aggravated attempted fraud for allegedly conspiring to submit false testimony in response to a lawsuit filed by Kirch. Ex-Chairman Clemens Boersig and ex-board member Tessen von Heydebreck will go on trial with them. Breuer and von Heydebreck are also charged with false testimony. Deutsche Bank must participate as an associated party in the case.

12-Year Dispute

The charges are part of the legacy of the 12-year-old dispute that Deutsche Bank sought to end when it settled with Kirch’s heirs last year. The lender paid 925 million euros ($1 billion) to resolve the civil cases, hoping the step would appease prosecutors in the criminal probe.

Kirch, who died in 2011 at the age of 84, had sued the bank, claiming Breuer caused his group’s demise when the then-bank CEO questioned its creditworthiness in a 2002 Bloomberg TV interview. The media entrepreneur had sought a total of 3.3 billion euros in suits his heirs continued after his death.

The more than 100-page long indictment outlines how prosecutors think bank managers and their lawyers plotted to thwart Kirch’s case. They allegedly conspired to do so after a Munich civil court in 2011 said it might rule against Deutsche Bank.

False Statements

Fitschen already knew that his colleagues had lied to the judges when he appeared at a June 2011 hearing and also didn’t prevent the bank from making false statements later in legal filings, according to prosecutors.

Speaking to reporters on Monday, Fitschen said he sees no basis for the charges. Lawyers for Fitschen and Ackermann declined to comment.

Lawyers for the other defendants didn’t immediately reply to e-mails and calls seeking comment. Deutsche Bank and the suspects have denied the allegations.

The chamber trying the case, led by Peter Noll, handles most of Munich’s high-profile white-collar cases -- such as the corruption trial that culminated in Bernie Ecclestone’s $100 million settlement.

The court scheduled 13 days of hearings through Aug. 4, with a maximum of one appearance per week.

Defense Statements

On Tuesday, prosecutors will read the indictment and then the defendants can comment in person or through their lawyers. The second day of trial on May 5 is also reserved for defense comments.

Aggravated attempted fraud carries sentences ranging from six months to 10 years in prison. If the men are convicted, Deutsche Bank could face a fine of as much as 1 million euros.

Any verdict is likely to be appealed and the case may drag on for years. Fitschen may have retired before any final ruling.

The bank has stood behind its co-CEO.

“Deutsche Bank has the advantage of having two bosses,” said Philipp Haessler, an analyst at Equinet Bank AG in Frankfurt. “Even if Fitschen may at some point be forced to step down, there is still Anshu Jain around.”

The trial starts against the most turbulent of backgrounds for Germany’s biggest bank. On April 23, the lender was fined $2.5 billion fine for rigging interest-rate benchmarks. Monday, it announced plans to reduce annual costs by a further 3.5 billion euros as part of a strategic overhaul.

While the criminal case is important, investors aren’t focusing on it, Haessler said.

“The other topics are just overwhelming,” said Haessler, who has a neutral rating on Deutsche Bank stock. “The market first and foremost will look at the new strategy. That will keep investors busy.”

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