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

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.

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

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.

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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


No marching orders: Swiss soldiers told to do military training at home

On Monday, Switzerland imposed the working from home requirement. It includes the army as well.

No marching orders: Swiss soldiers told to do military training at home
barracks are not as posh as one's own home. Photo by AFP

As part of Switzerland’s mandatory military service, new conscripts must undergo 15 to 18 weeks of basic training.

The exercises were supposed to begin on January 18th, but thousands of recruits who were scheduled to report to their assigned barracks got a reprieve of sorts.

To decrease the risk of Covid-19 spreading in the barracks, the army has decided that recruits should do their basic training  at home for the next three weeks.

“It's quite new”, Swiss army spokesperson Daniel Reist told the media, adding that “it is the ideal solution” during the pandemic. 

As a result of this unprecedented measure, some 5,000 of this year's 15,000 recruits will undergo their training from the comfort of their homes.

Reist said that each soldier received the learning module covering subjects such the operation of their service weapon, information on bacteriological and chemical arms, military regulations, and health protection.

“We leave them the choice of when to do their lessons, but they need six hours of telework each day”, Reist said.

Four hours of physical activity a week is also included in the training.

Though left pretty much to their own devices, the recruits won’t be able to slack off as their superiors can monitor when the person logs on and off.

And this theoretical knowledge will be tested when the recruits arrive at the barracks after three weeks home.

READ MORE: Swiss army 'on the front lines' in coronavirus battle 

Nor all the troops will be deployed at the same time, however.

The physical entry into the recruit school will be “staggered, in order to ensure that any conscript who tests positive for Covid-19 is optimally supported and that appropriate isolation and quarantine measures can be taken”, the Federal Department of Defense said in a press release

The first group, consisting of medical personnel who could be called upon to support the troops already mobilised with civilian personnel in Swiss hospitals, begin their service on Monday.

Those who are training from home will be called up on February 8th.

But not everyone is impressed by the new system.

“I can see that we have to make unconventional concessions right now, but I'm skeptical. Military service has a practical and social character which can’t be replaced by e-learning “, said Stefan Holenstein, president of the Swiss Society of Officers.

Despite its neutrality, Switzerland has compulsory military service. After undergoing basic training at the age of 19, Swiss are then required to spend several weeks in the army each year until they have completed at least 245 days of service.

Conscription is for men only but women can volunteer for any post.

READ MORE: Switzerland to get 24/7 fighter jet protection from 2021