FRANKFURT, Germany: Former Wirecard chief executive officer Markus Braun goes on trial in Munich this week for his role in the collapse of the once-celebrated payments firm, brought down by the biggest accounting fraud scandal in German corporate history.
Austrian-born Braun and two other former Wirecard executives will appear in the dock from Thursday on charges of commercial gang fraud, breach of trust, market manipulation and accounting manipulation.
The Munich district court has scheduled 100 court dates for the mammoth trial.
Once hailed as a standard-bearer for the German tech industry, Wirecard imploded spectacularly in 2020 after admitting that 1.9 billion euros ($2 billion) missing from its accounts probably didn't exist.
Chancellor Olaf Scholz, who was finance minister at the time, described the scandal as "unparalleled" in postwar Germany.
Braun, who has been in custody for over two years, denies any wrongdoing.
The 53-year-old has pointed the finger at Wirecard's fugitive former chief operating officer, Jan Marsalek, a shadowy figure with alleged ties to foreign intelligence agencies.
Marsalek was reported earlier this year to be hiding in Russia.
A senior Wirecard employee, however, told a German parliamentary inquiry last year that nothing happened at Wirecard without Braun's knowledge.
"The group was shaped by Markus Braun, and so was the corporate culture. He decided everything, he dictated everything," Rainer Wexeler told lawmakers.
On trial alongside Braun are Oliver Bellenhaus, the former head of Wirecard's Dubai subsidiary, and ex-accounting boss Stephan von Erffa.
They face several years in prison if convicted.
Bellenhaus has admitted wrongdoing and will serve as a key witness for the prosecution.
It took German investigators more than 20 months to unravel the complex web of fraudulent transactions implicating Wirecard subsidiaries and third-party companies across the globe.
Prosecutors say the accused presented "incorrect" financial results from 2015 to 2018, by including fabricated revenues and profits from partner companies in Dubai, the Philippines and Singapore, and using forged documents to make Wirecard appear more successful than it was.
Among the victims of the fraud were banks that had provided credit of 1.7 billion euros to Wirecard. Bonds worth 1.4 billion euros were also issued and are unlikely to be repaid.
Fall from grace
Founded in 1999, Wirecard started out as a Bavarian startup processing payments for porn and gambling sites, but later grew into a respectable electronic payments provider that edged traditional lender Commerzbank out of the blue-chip DAX index.
Rumors about possible cheating at Wirecard surfaced now and again over the years, including from shortsellers doing research on companies they suspected might be overvalued.
But Wirecard's problems began in earnest with a series of Financial Times (FT) newspaper articles in 2019 alleging irregularities in its Asian division, based on revelations from former employees and leaked documents.
The company was initially able to fend off the claims, with the FT's journalists themselves coming under investigation from German regulators.
But the scam finally unraveled in June 2020, when longtime auditor EY said it had discovered a 1.9-billion-euro hole in Wirecard's accounts.
The sum, which made up a quarter of the balance sheet, was meant to be sitting in trustee accounts at Philippine banks BDO Unibank and Bank of the Philippine Islands (BPI).
But the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas has said the cash never entered its monetary system and both BDO and BPI denied having a relationship with Wirecard.
Wirecard filed for insolvency soon after, becoming the first DAX company to fail. Its dramatic downfall sent shockwaves through Germany and prompted an overhaul of the country's finance watchdog Bafin, which was heavily criticized for ignoring early warning signs about Wirecard.
The fallout also embarrassed Germany's political establishment, with former chancellor Angela Merkel coming under fire for promoting Wirecard during a trip to China in 2019, when journalists were already raising doubts about the company.
In a grilling by lawmakers last year, Merkel said there was "no reason at that time" to believe there were "serious irregularities at Wirecard."