Swiss prosecutor’s resignation strikes at heart of country’s legal system

Michael Lauber was said to have ‘seriously violated his official and legal duties’ Keystone
This content was published on July 27, 2020 - 14:59
Sam Jones in Zurich, Financial Times

Switzerland’s embattled Attorney General, Michael Lauber, has resigned amid an escalating judicial investigation into his conduct that has struck at the foundations of the Swiss legal system. 

The charismatic 54-year-old, who shaped the prosecutor’s office into one of the most powerful institutions in Switzerland, announced last week that he would step down. 

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In a statement on Monday, the AB-BA, the supervisory body that oversees Lauber, said he had “seriously violated his official and legal duties”, and through his conduct he had “damaged the reputation of the Office of the Federal Prosecutor of Switzerland”.

Lauber – who has held the post of Switzerland’s most powerful law enforcement and investigatory official since 2012 – has been fighting allegations of wrongdoing in office since June last year, when leaked documents showed he held secret, un-minuted meetings with Gianni Infantino, president of FIFA. The investigation into corruption at the governing body of world football by Lauber’s office has for years been the most important, and sensitive, probe into white-collar crime in the wealthy alpine state, but has been dogged by problems. Lauber’s unofficial meetings called the entire investigation into doubt.

While Lauber staunchly defended his conduct, and initially denied any recollection of illicit meetings, allegations of a similar nature have followed in several other blockbuster cases. Over recent months, sensational headlines and official inquiries have painted Lauber as a freewheeling “judicial diplomat” keen to operate outside the routine limitations of Swiss legal procedure and broker deals with accused parties through his own intercessions in otherwise intractable cases. Swiss legal experts said the result has been a legal chaos. In particular, details of Lauber’s contacts with senior Russian law enforcement officials, and trips by personnel in his office to Moscow, have raised serious concern among international partners. 

Sweeping reforms?

Swiss parliamentarians are now considering whether sweeping reforms are needed for the Office of the Attorney General. The committee of parliamentarians which is responsible for overseeing the Swiss legal system has already commissioned two reports for major legal changes to the prosecutorial system, the Neue Zürcher Zeitung newspaper reported on Sunday. 

One of the options under consideration is a radical curtailment of the prosecutor’s powers, a return to the system as it was before 2011. 

In recent weeks, the tide has been turning against Lauber. A parliamentary committee announced the beginning of a process to impeach him in May, and last month, authorities formally appointed a special prosecutor – with extraordinary powers outside of the legal system Lauber heads – to consider a file of evidence against him alleging criminal wrongdoing. 

Damning report

Lauber’s abrupt departure followed a ruling on Friday by the Federal Administrative Court in St Gallen, which quashed an appeal he launched earlier this year against a damning report into his conduct by the AB-BA. 

The court in St Gallen upheld the AB-BA report’s central findings, that Lauber had misled authorities and was guilty of several critical procedural rule breaches. 

In a short statement, Lauber said he “completely rejects the insinuation of having lied”, but added that it was impossible to continue in his role so long as questions over his trustworthiness remained. “Therefore, in the interests of the institution [of the federal prosecutor’s office] I offer my resignation to the competent judicial commission.” 

It is unclear whether criminal complaints against Lauber will be taken forward. As yet, the special prosecutor appointed to consider the merits of the claims has made no determination on whether to continue his work. 

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2020

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