Former CSV president faces court over fraud claims

Frank Engel, pictured during a press conference announcing his resignation in March 2021 Library photo: Matic Zorman / Maison Moderne

Frank Engel, pictured during a press conference announcing his resignation in March 2021 Library photo: Matic Zorman / Maison Moderne

A trial against former CSV president Frank Engel into the misuse of party assets starts on Tuesday, a case that triggered a leadership crisis among Luxembourg’s biggest opposition party.

Engel between June and December last year received a salary of around €6,000 a month from a not-for-profit affiliated with the CSV, the so-called CSV Frëndeskrees. Among other functions, the group owns the party’s HQ, as political parties aren’t allowed to hold real estate.

In return for the money, Engel was supposed to find a new headquarters for the party, explore transforming the not-for-profit into a foundation and drive party recruitment. However, he faces allegations that this job was only a front for him to receive a salary. The office of party president isn’t renumerated and Engel had no other income at the time.

Only a handful of people knew about the contract but it was revealed to a wider audience within the party during a review of accounts in spring of 2021. Members of the CSV reported the suspicion of misuse of party assets and fraud to the public prosecutor’s office.

Six other defendants are facing court this week. These include the CSV’s former secretary general Félix Eischen and CSV Frëndeskrees treasurer André Martins.

Clashes with party

Engel had previously clashed with members of the CSV. For example, he spoke out in favour of introducing a wealth tax and raising more taxes on inheritances. He later apologised, having spoken without the party’s backing, but already then there was speculation he might be pressured to resign.

Stepping down as CSV president in March this year, Engel said: “If the CSV’s unity is only possible without me, then so be it,” adding that he took on the post with the mission to design a better future for the party. “But this isn’t a better future for the CSV,” he said, quitting the party entirely the following month.

Engel became CSV president in 2019, securing 54% of votes in a run-off against Serge Wilmes, a member of parliament who also sits on the Luxembourg City municipal council.

From 2009 to 2019, he served as a member of the European Parliament for Luxembourg. In 2017, he ruffled feathers for visiting the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region in Azerbaijan to observe a referendum on changes to the constitution. Engel travelled with three other MEPs but the EU does not officially recognise Nagorno-Karabakh as a territory and the group faced criticism they were undermining the bloc’s position.

Trouble for new team

In the wake of Engel’s resignation, the CSV elected Claude Wiseler as its new president, who selected a leadership team to serve with him. However, two of the people chosen--co-president Elisabeth Margue and co-secretary general Stéphanie Weydert--are also among the six people targeted by the public prosecutor’s office.

The CSV in a survey earlier this year polled poorly. The party would have secured just 17 seats in parliament in the fake June ballot, losing four mandates compared to its actual result in the October 2018 elections. The CSV is the biggest opposition party in Luxembourg but also the biggest group in parliament of any party.

While in November last year, the party received a score of 0.1 on how highly voters think of the work it does (on a scale of +5, thinking very highly, to -5), this dropped to -0.1 in the June survey.

Wiseler in an interview for Delano’s June edition said he would expect the party to fare poorly if elections were held now. “My goal is to get these numbers up,” he said. The CSV’s new president was the party’s only politician in the top ten of a June popularity poll, with an approval score of 57%.

Hearings start on Tuesday and are set for three days.