In his previous life as a high-flying Wirecard manager, Oliver Bellenhaus spent a lot of time persuading auditors that the German payments group’s opaque outsourced operations in Asia were real.
Now, as the prosecution’s chief witness in one of Europe’s highest-profile fraud trials, he is trying to convince a panel of five judges that the same business he oversaw in Dubai was a complete sham.
After the first five days of court hearings since early December, it is not yet clear which is the easier task. Bellenhaus, a sports car enthusiast who played Call of Duty on a giant screen in his office for hours, is aware that he faces what looks like a tricky philosophical dilemma: “You can only prove the existence of something, not its non-existence,” he told the court in his opening statement in December.
The trial dissecting Wirecard’s collapse started last month and is expected to run well into 2024. It is seen as a crucial test of whether German law enforcement can come to terms with one of Europe’s biggest post-war accounting frauds. The hearings will reconvene on Wednesday, with the ongoing questioning of Bellenhaus.
Wirecard’s former chief executive Markus Braun faces allegations of fraud, embezzlement, accounting and market manipulation alongside Bellenhaus and Wirecard’s former head of accounting Stephan von Erffa. If found guilty on all charges, they could face up to 15 years in jail.
Bellenhaus’s statements in the trial are key for the prosecution’s case. In line with Wirecard’s administrator and the prosecution, he argues that the outsourced operations in Asia were “a sham right from the beginning”.
According to Bellenhaus, they were created with Braun’s knowledge to hide losses at Wirecard’s real business. Braun denies that. He states that the so-called third party acquiring (TPA) business was real, and accuses Bellenhaus and Wirecard’s fugitive second-in-command Jan Marsalek of stripping Wirecard of its proceeds.
On paper, Wirecard’s business in Asia generated half of the company’s revenue and €1.9bn in corporate cash. When it was revealed in June 2020 that the cash did not exist, the company once celebrated as Germany’s PayPal collapsed into insolvency within a week.
In the first two days of his court testimony in December, Bellenhaus depicted a tight-knit gang of fraudsters led by Braun who forged documents, lied to auditors and deceived creditors and investors. “There was a system of organised fraud,” he said, adding that the chief executive was at its centre. “Braun called the shots, and when he said something, it was done his way.”
He described Braun as an “absolutistic CEO” who was “besotted” by exponential revenue growth and the group’s share price, and surrounded by a loyal circle of accomplices. “Nothing binds men together more closely than a mutually committed crime,” he said.
Bellenhaus joined Wirecard in 2002 from DZ Bank, one of Germany’s largest lenders. His banking expertise was highly prized, former colleagues said, and in those early years he travelled the world for Wirecard, cultivating relationships with financial institutions.
His rise in the company’s ranks reflected a culture that tolerated, or even celebrated, transgression. Bellenhaus was renowned for driving like a maniac. Among the stories former Wirecard staff told was that Bellenhaus would collect clients arriving at Munich airport wearing a racing suit.
After asking his passengers if they’d like to go fast on the autobahn, he would pull a single helmet from the footwell and strap it on theatrically. “OK, we’ll go fast,” was the last thing they heard before the engine roared and they careered away, expertly drifting around corners. Bellenhaus has called these stories rumours.
In the early years, Bellenhaus had an office at headquarters where he relaxed by playing Call of Duty on a large TV. By the mid-2010s he was based in Dubai on his own, in charge of a subsidiary that was to become the engine of Wirecard’s fraud from an apartment in the Burj Khalifa skyscraper.
Reporting to Marsalek and von Erffa, Bellenhaus supposedly managed partner companies to which Wirecard outsourced its most lucrative payments processing. These partner companies were “monkeys in suits”, he told a colleague in Dubai.
According to his testimony in court, the Dubai-based operations existed on paper only to mask the fact that Wirecard’s real business was loss-making. “Had Wirecard been as ambitious with regard to developing new products, managing its technical infrastructure and its customer service as it was with regard to the decoration of its TPA business, we would not be sitting here today,” Bellenhaus told the court.
The snag is that large parts of this version of events relies on his verbal testimony. Marsalek and several other key suspects cannot be questioned by the court in Munich — the former chief operating officer is on the run, the head of one fraudulent business partner is reported dead and other alleged partners in crime are in Singapore. Moreover, the fraud was not discussed in emails but mainly on the Telegram messaging app. The bulk of the chats was deleted before police could seize the evidence.
Braun has so far stayed silent in court. His lawyer Alfred Dierlamm, one of Germany’s most high-profile white-collar crime lawyers, vehemently disputes Bellenhaus’s account. Dierlamm argues that the TPA operations were real but that Bellenhaus and Marsalek embezzled the proceeds, establishing a “shadow structure” that was hidden from the chief executive.
Dierlamm has not only accused Bellenhaus of telling “a pack of lies”, he has attacked public prosecutors for not properly investigating the fraud, or analysing payments linked to the company’s business partners.
Florian Eder, Bellenhaus’s lead lawyer, told the Financial Times that Braun’s defence was “[attempting] to discredit the chief witness as far as possible”. A motion to suspend the trial, filed by Dierlamm on the first day in court, has not yet been decided upon.
Initially Bellenhaus was visibly rattled by allegations made against him in Braun’s defence. He read out his opening statement at speed and in a low voice, with the judge at one point reminding him that he did not need to rush.
“This surely is not a trial which will be measured in hours,” presiding judge Markus Födisch said, urging him to “take all the time you need”. In the afternoon, Bellenhaus briefly became emotional, addressing Braun and von Erffa by their first names and stating that at Wirecard he “went to bed with rats and woke up with the plague”. He was reprimanded by Födisch and apologised the next day.
Dierlamm “fails to recognise that there is other evidence that underpins Bellenhaus’s accounts”, Eder told the FT. One example is the fabrication of client data in 2019, in order to deceive Japanese tech investor SoftBank during its due diligence for a €900mn convertible bond. This was first disclosed by Bellenhaus and then corroborated by other evidence.
Another example is the faking of documents by von Erffa, which Bellenhaus described to prosecutors and was admitted by the former head of accounting after prosecutors confronted him with the emails confirming the allegation.
Eder also pointed out to the court that while his client could have stayed in Dubai, which does not have an extradition treaty with Germany, he voluntarily reported himself to Munich prosecutors less than two weeks after Wirecard’s collapse, fully aware that he would be kept in police custody as he was considered a flight risk. He, like Braun, has been in jail for more than two-and-a-half years.
“There is no excuse whatsoever for what happened at Wirecard over the past decade with my involvement,” Bellenhaus told the court. “I do want to apologise.”