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Rival to Germany's Merkel hits back in speech fees row
BERLIN (Reuters) - Chancellor Angela Merkel's designated challenger in next year's federal election angrily rejected accusations on Tuesday that he sold out to bankers with lucrative speaking engagements and neglected his duties as a member of parliament by moonlighting.
Former Finance Minister Peer Steinbrueck, who will lead the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD) into the 2013 election, told a national TV audience he had earned 1.25 million euros for 89 speeches since 2009 but said he donated some money to charity.
The extra income, which might not even raise an eyebrow in countries such as the United States where lucrative fees for sought-after speakers are common, has stirred a sharp debate in Germany, where the average 7,300 euros net per speech Steinbrueck earned is three times most workers' monthly pay.
"It's an absurd accusation that I've somehow become dependent on those who invited me for these speeches," Steinbrueck said tersely, a reference to the high number of banks and financial industry groups that invited him.
"These accusations are groundless," he added, appearing deeply uncomfortable during a 25-minute news conference. "They're dim-witted. I actually used these appearances to read the riot act to these financial institutions."
Steinbrueck, whose party trails Merkel's conservatives by about 10 percentage points in opinion polls, was already facing an uphill fight to oust the chancellor. But the fees row has cast a shadow over a campaign that has only just begun.
Steinbrueck, 65, has faced a slew of criticism from Merkel's centre-right coalition but also from the SPD's left wing and from anti-graft campaigners for the speaker's fees, even though he had not violated any German disclosure rules.
Steinbrueck sought to turn the tables on his critics by releasing details of his income that went far beyond those reporting rules and calling upon the ruling centre-right parties to follow suit. Some conservative lawmakers staunchly oppose stricter reporting rules on supplementary income.
"I'd like to set an example for other parties," Steinbrueck said. "To some of those out there who tried to throw a stone at my head with accusations of lacking transparency, I'd like to turn that stone into a boomerang now and throw it back at them."
Steinbrueck's blunt language and gruff style made him a popular after-dinner speaker in the three years since the SPD lost the 2009 election. At the news conference on Tuesday, he pointed out sportsmen and entertainers earn even larger sums.
An outspoken critic of Swiss banking secrecy, as finance minister Steinbrueck threatened to send in the German cavalry to hunt down Germans evading tax by hiding assets in Switzerland.
In Tuesday's news briefing, Steinbrueck said his after-dinner speeches had allowed him to meet people outside the SPD's usual constituency, and said he enjoyed telling bankers things they did not want to hear.
He said he had only missed seven votes in parliament during three years of heavy speaking engagements and made 250 unpaid appearances in his election district in North Rhine-Westphalia.
Steinbrueck, who was nominated by the SPD on September 28, said until recently he had never dreamed of being the SPD's chancellor candidate and had been content to be a quiet backbencher in parliament in the twilight of his career.
"Many of these speeches were delivered at a point in time when neither I nor the SPD could have imagined that I'd be climbing back into the ring," said Steinbrueck.
(Editing by Gareth Jones and Jon Boyle)
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