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Defiant Kohl Stands By His Past

After months of buildup, disgraced former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl testified Thursday for the first time in his ongoing campaign finance scandal, flatly denying that he traded government favors for cash during his during his 16 years in power.

"The accusation that we were corruptible in our political decisions is absurd," an unflappable Kohl said at the end of a one-hour statement he read to a parliamentary investigating committee.

"Never in my entire life has anyone been able to buy me," Kohl said.

As expected, Kohl also refused to talk on the central issue of the investigation: Who gave him some $1 million in undeclared - and thus illegal - campaign funds in the 1990s, names even his own party pressed him to reveal.

"I have acknowledged the mistakes and apologized for them, but I say once again I will not name the anonymous donors," Kohl said.

Kohl insists the donors were citizens who wanted to support the party's work in former communist East Germany in the early 1990s. He said he promised them anonymity and refuses to break his word.

After initial banter with members of a parliamentary investigating committee Thursday morning, Kohl launched into a rambling statement focused on his historic achievements as the chancellor who unified Germany in 1990.

Kohl's long-awaited testimony gives him a chance to counter allegations about murky dealings under his administration that have dirtied that reputation. And Kohl made no secret of his views that the investigation was a well orchestrated vendetta by the committee dominated by the governing center-left parties to destroy his legacy.

"The real reason is to wipe 16 successful years out of history," Kohl said.

Kohl also criticized the committee for not hearing his side of the story immediately after the investigation began seven months ago, as he had requested.

After his initial statement, Kohl will be grilled by committee members for the rest of Thursday's daylong hearing. Kohl is also expected to be called to testify again over the next few months as the committee digs deeper into the allegations.

The party financing scandal that erupted last fall with Kohl's admission that he accepted illegal donations as chancellor has developed into an enduring political drama that dogs the conservative Christian Democratic party once led by Kohl.

The parliamentary panel also is investigating several business deals under the Kohl government in which kickbacks allegedly flowed, including a tank sale to Saudi Arabia and the privatization of a major oil refinery in eastern Germany that was sold to French concern Elf Aquitaine.

Facing the panel, Kohl pointedly denied receiving money to push those deals through and maintained he was unaware of anyone in his administration being bought off.

Earlier testimony by former Kohl aides shed little light on the scandal or the role of a businessman a its center, Karlheinz Schreiber.

Schreiber, currently fighting extradition from Canada on German tax evasion charges, allegedly handed over $500,000 in cash to Kohl aides at a Swiss shopping mall in 1991. He also reportedly was involved in the tank sale.

But Schreiber shielded Kohl in a television interview this week in which he rejected rumors that he lobbied the Kohl government with cash to support his projects and said he never talked business with Kohl.

Kohl, whose angry demands to testify early in the hearings were turned down, has been virtually banished from German public life. But he has received a steady string of visiting foreign dignitaries since the scandal broke, including President Clinton and, this week, French President Jacques Chirac.

In the latest accusation of criminal conduct, an independent investigator said large numbers of government files - equivalent to 1.2 million pieces of paper - were destroyed in late 1998 shortly before Kohl handed over power to newly elected Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder.

"This massive erasing of data lacked any legal basis," investigator Burkhard Hirsch said Wednesday after a four-month investigation of chancellery files ordered by Schroeder.

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