FRANKFURT am MAIN, Germany (AFP) — The former chief executive of payment-processor Wirecard, Markus Braun, has been arrested on suspicion of market manipulation, German prosecutors said Tuesday, after the company admitted that $2.1 billion missing from its accounts probably “do not exist.”
Prosecutors in Munich said Austrian-born Braun, who resigned as CEO on Friday, had voluntarily presented himself to the authorities Monday evening after the arrest warrant was issued.
Investigations show that “the conduct of the accused justifies the suspicion of inaccurate presentation concurring with market manipulation,” prosecutors said in a statement.
It was the latest twist in what is fast turning into one of Germany’s biggest-ever financial frauds, drawing comparisons with the Enron accounting scandal of the early 2000s in the United States.
Munich prosecutors said they believe Braun artificially inflated the digital payment company’s assets and sales volumes through “fake transactions with so-called third party acquirers in order to make the company seem financially stronger and more attractive to investors and customers.”
Braun may have acted “with other perpetrators,” they said.
The Austrian computer scientist joined Wirecard in 2002 and oversaw the Bavarian start-up’s high-profile entry into the prestigious DAX 30 index in 2018, when Wirecard edged out traditional lender Commerzbank.
Wirecard was plunged into crisis last week when auditors Ernst & Young said $2.1 billion were missing from the company’s accounts.
The missing money was held to cover risks in trading supposedly carried out by third parties on Wirecard’s behalf and was meant to be sitting in escrow accounts at two Philippine banks.
But the two Asian banks, BDO and BPI, denied having a relationship with Wirecard.
Braun resigned abruptly the next day and the company’s chief operating officer Jan Marsalek was fired on Monday.
Wirecard admitted on Monday that “on the basis of further examination … there is a prevailing likelihood that the bank trust account balances in the amount of 1.9 billion EUR do not exist.”
The admission follows more than a year of reporting, especially by the Financial Times, on accounting irregularities in the company’s Asian division.
The reports prompted Munich prosecutors in early June to open a probe alleging “market manipulation” by the group’s management board, including Braun.
The latest developments have sent Wirecard’s share price plunging. It was trading at just over 16 euros Tuesday morning, down from almost 100 euros last Wednesday.
Wirecard is in crisis talks with creditors and is “examining a broad range of possible further measures to ensure continuation of its business operations,” including restructuring and selling off or simply halting some activities.
The firm, which employs nearly 6,000 people, has withdrawn its preliminary results for 2019 and the first quarter of this year.
by MICHELLE FITZPATRICK
© Agence France-Presse