On Christmas Day, Ingolf Viereck was an obscure Social Democratic member of a German state legislature. By New Year's Day, he was a celebrity.

The day that changed his life was December 30, when Bild, the daily newspaper, stretched his photograph across four columns, asking: “Why must these political con-men always lie?”

Mr Viereck, who could not be reached, is one of several elected officials whose extra-curricular activities have forced some of Germany's biggest companies to review their relationship with legislators and sparked a bout of soul-searching about the integrity of the body politic.

The member of the Lower Saxony parliament and mayor of Wolfsburg, it emerged last month, had retained a job paying €3,000 (£2,095) a month at carmaker Volkswagen after entering the legislature in 1994.

No rules appeared to have been broken. But as doubts grew about the nature of his work he belonged to VW's “government relations” division, with responsibility for sport sponsorship Mr Viereck, who chairs Wolfsburg's municipal sports committee, was summoned to explain himself before the regional parliament. Last week he said he had relinquished his job at the carmaker.

Several elected officials, including members of the national parliament, are facing the same question: are they being paid for office work or acting as undercover lobbyists? German parliamentarians may keep working throughout their terms, despite generous allowances. The only proviso is that work should not conflict with political obligations and the president of their house is informed. Their pay remains confidential.

Yet critics say it is difficult to determine for what services a parliamentarian is being paid. Members of French and British legislatures are more restricted in the activities they can undertake, even though their pay is also confidential.

British MPs are explicitly barred from activities linked to lobbying. Deputies of France's Assemblée Nationale cannot work for state-owned companies, banks or businesses that trade with, or depend on, the state. In Germany, the rules about what activity is incompatible with holding office are more loosely formulated.Some heads have already rolled. Hermann-Josef Arentz, a Christian Democratic member of the North Rhine-Westphalian parliament, was expelled from the CDU's top executive last month for drawing a yearly €60,000 salary from the RWE energy group long after he had stopped working for it.

Laurenz Meyer, secretary general of the CDU and former employee of an RWE subsidiary, had to fall on his sword after it emerged he had pocketed a severance payment to which he was not entitled.

Public outrage, first directed at politicians, has now engulfed their employers. State-controlled businesses, such as VW, and those with extensive dealings with the state such as Siemens and RWE, are being asked about the parliamentarians on their payrolls.

VW has said it will name all elected officials it employs by the end of the month. The carmaker also said it would review its guidelines on the hiring of elected representatives. Until now, the group had guaranteed all employees who enter a legislature the payment of their salaries, even if they could no longer show up for work. Siemens, whose recently retired chief executive Heinrich von Pierer, was once a CDU town councillor, said 500 of its employees were elected representatives, although most of those acting at the national level had relinquished their pay.

As public outrage has swollen, politicians have swung into action. After playing down the need for new rules, Franz Müntefering, chairman of the SPD, has asked all parliamentary groups to come up with reform proposals. Members of the North-Rhine Westphalian legislature meet tomorrow to decide if they should be the first in the country to publish their salaries a taboo in Germany.

“Parliamentarians have an immense privilege,” says Herbert von Arnim, professor of public law at Speyer University. “No other official paid by the state can hold a second job. Scrutiny should therefore be high. Only by publishing their income can they demonstrate that their work is legitimate.”

But most parties remain officially opposed to publishing pay details. The SPD and the Greens tabled a bill to subject pay to outside scrutiny, while in opposition 10 years ago, but their enthusiasm has diminished in power. “Nothing will come out of it,” predicted one aide to a Green MP. Prof von Arnim disagrees: “Things will have to change.”

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