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Heli taxis and huge alcohol bills: Swiss army top brass under fire over expenses

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Heli taxis and huge alcohol bills: Swiss army top brass under fire over expenses
Partners of high-ranking Swiss army officers were flown free-of-charge to Valais in 2017 in Super Puma helicopters. Photo: AFP
22:33 CET+01:00
Seven beers, 82 shots, ten bottles of white wine, 12 bottles of red and nine cigars: this is the bill rung up by a Swiss corps commander and 27 guests – mostly high-ranking military officers – in 2014 on a night described as an "orgy" of drinking.

The total cost to the Swiss taxpayer for that night was 1735.20 Swiss francs (€1,530) or almost 79 francs per army employee.

This is just one example of extravagant, unchecked spending of public money by the Swiss army to appear in an internal defence department report that was never supposed to go public.

The 44-page report came after the Swiss army’s top medical officer, Andreas Stettbacher, was temporarily relieved of his duties over allegations he had committed fraud and official misconduct by spending 15,000 Swiss francs on a Christmas function.

Read also: Swiss military service: 'Fat doesn't mean unfit to serve.' says commission

Under fire, Stettbacher decided he would go down swinging. He informed investigators that two of the Swiss army’s three corps commanders – the highest rank in the country’s armed forces – were guilty of racking up far greater expenses. He named those two as Daniel Baumgartner, current head of training and education for the army, and as the current chief of the armed forces Lieutenant General Philippe Rebord.

Shortly after Stettbacher made those accusations, he was allowed to return to work. Another investigation was then launched into Baumgartner and Rebord.

The resulting report has only now seen the light of day after a concerted campaign by Swiss newspapers Tages Anzeiger and La Liberté.

Baumgartner comes in for the greatest criticism in the report. It gives details, for example, of a 2015 army Christmas party for 3,500 military personnel and 500 guests that cost half a million francs, as well of the hard-drinking night in 2014 outlined at the beginning of this article.

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It also reveals that there was a biennial “tradition” in the army of allowing partners of high-ranking officers to accompany their husbands and boyfriends to staff seminars.

As part of this tradition, Rebord, in 2017, signed off on expenses that included flying the wives and girlfriends of 18 high-ranking officers by army helicopter to the canton of Valais. The women were treated to free golf the next day.

Those women had to pay just 100 francs for the trip which cost 7,000 francs per head even before the cost of the helicopter flights was factored in. An hour’s flying time in a Swiss army Super Puma helicopter costs 10,900 francs according to the Tages Anzeiger newspaper.

In the wake of the revelations in the report, the Swiss army was quick to roll out rules for expenses. These came into force in September. Previously, there were none. A repeat of the Valais helicopter flights would now be against the rules.

But investigators cleared Rebord of all wrongdoing saying he had acted within the rules as they stood at the time and that he had cooperated fully during investigations.

Baumgartner was rapped over the knuckles over alcohol expenses at two events. But he found himself in hotter water over the purchase of several special edition gold coins valued at 12,000 francs with public money.

Investigators ruled he had acted inappropriately when he gave these to staff. Worse, he had acted unlawfully when he received one of these as a gift after leaving his former position as the head of the Armed Forces Logistics Organization.

However, no criminal proceedings were launched against Baumgartner and Defence Minister Guy Parmelin has come out in support of the corps commander.

In an interview published in the Blick newspaper on Monday, Parmelin stressed he would not tolerate “this type of handling of tax francs” and that personnel involved had been warned about the issues involved.

The defence minister also said that while a complete alcohol ban would be “excessive”, the new spending rules made it clear that consumption must be reasonable.

The full report into the abuse of expenses in the army is set to be published online late on Tuesday afternoon, a spokesperson for the forces told The Local.

Read also: Video - Swiss soldiers ordered to throw stones and nuts at colleague

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