Wirecard was a “sloppily done fraud” conceived by a group led by an “absolutist chief executive” bent on creating the illusion that the German payments company was more successful than it was, a former executive has told a Munich court.
In much anticipated testimony, Oliver Bellenhaus, the former head of a Wirecard subsidiary and the prosecution’s chief witness, described the Munich-based company as a “scam right from the start” that was doomed to fail.
The 49-year-old, who led a Dubai-based business at the heart of the fraud, apologised for his own role in the multiyear deception. There is no excuse for what I have done. Nonetheless, I want to apologise.”
In a halting voice, Bellenhaus told the five judges that “it does not come naturally to me to take responsibility,” and that his own role began with “minor transgressions” and then over the years ended with “criminal acts.”
Wirecard collapsed in 2020 in one of Europe’s biggest accounting scandals after revealing that €1.9bn in cash and half of its revenue did not exist. Bellenhaus is on trial in Munich alongside Wirecard’s former chief executive Markus Braun and Stephan von Erffa, who was the payment group’s head of accounting.
The trio are charged with fraud, embezzlement, accounting and market manipulation. If found guilty, they could face up to 15 years in jail. Braun and von Erffa deny wrongdoing.
Bellenhaus has spent the past two-and-a-half years in police custody after traveling from Dubai and voluntarily reporting himself to the authorities.
After the Financial Times obtained internal documents from a Wirecard whistleblower in early 2019, “we were fighting a rearguard battle,” he told the court.
Reading from a written statement running to more than 200 pages, Bellenhaus admitted that over several years he fabricated documents intended to show that Wirecard made €1bn in annual revenue from its purported outsourced payments processing operations in Asia.
Bellenhaus told the court that each quarter he was briefed by Von Erffa about the amounts needed to offset the gap between the group’s internal targets and the performance of Wirecard’s real operations. The deception was motivated by Braun, who was “obsessed” with reporting further growth by the company, Bellenhaus said.
Neither “money nor social prestige” were his own motivation for participating in the fraud, Bellenhaus said, but that Wirecard “was my identity” and over time “small lies became bigger and bigger”.
In his detailed and sometimes rambling statement, Bellenhaus described a meeting with Braun, Jan Marsalek, Wirecard’s former second-in-command, and Von Erffa in the chief executive’s office in October 2019, shortly after KPMG had begun a forensic investigation of Wirecard’s books.
Bellenhaus said that he told the meeting it would be impossible to withstand the audit as KPMG was insisting on access to detailed information on the so-called third-party acquiring (TPA) businesses that did not exist.
“Braun said it will only be a semi-forensic audit,” Bellenhaus told the court, adding that the former Wirecard boss explained he was already in contact with KPMG’s chief executive and would make sure the Big Four firm conducted a light-touch investigation.
Bellenhaus told the court how he created mock IT systems for the sham Asian operations, detailing how he relied on servers that had been decommissioned by the payments group as well as some bought on Ebay. The former executive also revealed he had been concerned that an IT audit by EY in 2019 would expose the sham.
“None of the TPA partners possessed the necessary regulatory licenses to conduct their business, and they also lacked required IT certificates,” Bellenhaus said. He pointed out that KPMG also missed it during its forensic investigation.
The prosecution’s chief witness also sought to refute the argument made last week by Alfred Dierlamm, Braun’s lawyer, who said that, while the outsourced operations in Asia did exist, the proceeds were embezzled by Bellenhaus and Marsalek.
Bellenhaus disagreed, accusing Dierlamm and Braun of “deliberately inventing new black boxes that are impossible to be investigated in years to come.”
The payments referred to by Dierlamm were unrelated to the TPA, said Bellenhaus, who spent more than an hour of his testimony dissecting several of them.
The TPAs had no contractual obligation to do business with Wirecard so could have easily severed ties in the run-up to the group’s collapse, Bellenhaus told the court. He also pointed out that despite, on paper, processing billions of euros a month in payments, no clients of the TPAs ever sought to contact Wirecard after its failure.
Dierlamm, who last week filed a motion to suspend the trial, took aim at Bellenhaus.
He told the court that new documents, recently shared by prosecutors with the defence, showed that from late 2019 Bellenhaus started to transfer personal wealth to his wife — funds that were most likely embezzled from Wirecard. Dierlam accused Bellenhaus of failing to disclose the transactions to prosecutors early in his co-operation with them.
The presiding judge Markus Födisch said on Monday that the court would need more time to decide on Dierlamm’s motion to dismiss the trial. Should the motion be rejected, Braun would probably give testimony “in the second half of January”.
Bellenhaus’s testimony is expected to resume on Wednesday.