When freshly-retired Swiss cabinet minister Moritz Leuenberger confirmed plans to join the board of a major construction company, tongues began wagging.
Leuenberger – formerly the minister responsible for transport, environment, energy and communications issues – has been nominated to join the board of Implenia, Switzerland’s largest construction company.
The announcement came just three weeks after the 64-year-old Social Democrat left the parliament building, and one week after he was tapped to serve as president of an advisory committee responsible for the integration of Swiss International Air Lines into Germany’s Lufthansa.
Implenia hopes Leuenberger will be voted in at its meeting in April 2011.
“Moritz Leuenberger is known internationally as one of the most effective champions of sustainable development, and he knows a great deal about how buildings and infrastructure need to be made to serve future generations,” said Implenia in a statement earlier this week.
Questioned about the propriety of taking on such a role, the centre-left politician told Swiss television: “I’m not changing sides. I’m doing the same work, but at a private level rather than a public one. I’d never fight the public authorities; on the contrary, this infrastructure company is active for the public authorities.”
Cooling off period
Transparency International (TI), an organisation that fights corruption, is wary of such appointments in general.
“The prospect of a well-paid mandate after the term of office – in connection with his duties – can consciously or unconsciously limit the decision-making authority of a public official,” said TI in a statement this week.
Anne Schwöbel, director of the Swiss branch of TI, elaborated on the potential conflicts of interest involved.
She told swissinfo.ch that she could appreciate that a politician taking a board seat might be well-informed about the subject and its challenges, “but that it didn’t outweigh the risks – such as the danger of too much influence on his decision-making process, which could lead to unfair competition.”
With that in mind, TI has called for a mandatory “cooling off period” to be observed by politicians and other public officials. The idea is that they would be required by law to wait two-to-five years before taking on mandates from the private economy.
“A so-called ‘cooling off’ period helps reduce the risk of any impropriety when a retiring politician takes on a new role,” Schwöbel said.
Regarding the case of Leuenberger and Implenia, the TI statement noted that there was “no reason to doubt the good faith of either side”.
Life after office
Leuenberger is certainly not the first Swiss cabinet minister to accept a new position after stepping down from public office.
Former Finance Minister Kaspar Villiger holds a number of high-profile positions, including Chairman of the Board of Directors of UBS as well as seats on the boards of Nestlé, Swiss Re and the Neue Zürcher Zeitung newspaper.
Villiger earns so much in these roles that he is no longer eligible for the SFr215,000 (€161,000) annual pension paid to retired Swiss cabinet members. If Leuenberger is elected to Implenia’s board, he’ll receive about SFr100,000 per year.
“There has to be a professional life after stepping down as cabinet minister,” points out an editorial by Beat Waber in the Wednesday edition of the Neue Zürcher Zeitung. He agreed that TI had brought up a valid point, but noted that it could be difficult to regulate.
Yet Waber goes on to say that some jobs are considered more appropriate than others.
“What’s classic is the switch to a non-profit activity, whether in cultural foundations or relief agencies, or as a lecturer at a university,” Waber wrote.
Former Interior Minister Pascal Couchepin serves on the board of a Swiss cancer research foundation. And earlier this year, ex-Foreign Minister Joseph Deiss was elected president of the United Nations General Assembly.
Leuenberger has hinted that something international might be in the pipeline for him as well.
As he told the Swiss media, he wants to keep busy: “I’m not the kind of pensioner who collects mushrooms.”
Implenia and Leuenberger
During the construction of the Gotthard Base Tunnel, Implenia benefited from the decisions of then-cabinet minister Moritz Leuenberger – according to the Friday edition of the Tages-Anzeiger newspaper.
The article takes a look at the history of the tunnel project and the various construction companies hired to work on it, including Implenia.
Over the years there were some problems regarding equipment as well as disputes over which firms would get building contracts – causing delays that cost as much as SFr10 million (€7.5 million) per month or flat sums of SFr150 million.
The article quotes Leuenberger at the time, explaining why Implenia had received one million francs for a bid that did not yield a contract; he said that the payment would have been cheaper for taxpayers than an endless legal dispute.
The Tages-Anzeiger also quotes rightwing People’s Party Senator This Jenny, a member of the tunnel project’s supervisory committee.
“I don’t understand why people were always in such a hurry regarding construction and willing to accept extra costs,” Jenny said, dismayed by how the contract for the Erstfeld portion of the tunnel was handled.
The Swiss government consists of a cabinet made up of seven members.
The cabinet should reflect the political, cultural and linguistic diversity of the country.
Swiss cabinet ministers do not answer to their parties and there is no possibility to impeach them.
They are free to choose the moment of their resignation themselves and they enjoy a considerable autonomy in the cabinet.
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