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Updated: 02/15/2014 01:19:01AM

Merkel suffers setback as farm minister quits

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Patrick Donahue

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BERLIN (Bloomberg) — German Agriculture Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich has quit over his handling of confidential information in a criminal probe, dealing Chancellor Angela Merkel’s 8-week-old government its first setback.

Friedrich, who was interior minister in Merkel’s last government, said Friday he had lost the political support to continue and handed in his resignation to the chancellor. Merkel accepted his decision “with great respect and great regret,” saying that a replacement would be named later.

Prosecutors in Berlin said Friday that they may investigate Friedrich and others involved for breach of confidentiality after he told Social Democratic Party head Sigmar Gabriel about the investigation of an SPD lawmaker suspected of downloading images of naked boys. The opposition Greens party said Friedrich’s resignation wasn’t enough and called on Merkel to do more to ensure the matter was cleared up.

“Friedrich’s departure is not in itself a risk to the coalition, but the potential fallout from a destabilized SPD leadership would be enormous,” Carsten Nickel, an analyst with Teneo Intelligence, said by phone. “This affair is creating ever-widening circles.”

While the shakeup injects turmoil to Merkel’s coalition of her Christian Democratic bloc and the SPD early in her third term, she has weathered previous cabinet resignations without lasting political damage. Merkel lost her education, labor, environment and defense ministers as well as her pick of German president last term before securing the biggest election victory since 1990 in September’s federal vote.

Prosecutors in Berlin are examining the conduct of “all persons” involved in the matter to determine whether to open investigations into allegations of illegal disclosure of official secrets and obstruction of justice, Martin Steltner, the spokesman for Berlin prosecutors, said by telephone Friday.

Friedrich remains “convinced that I acted properly, both politically and legally, when I informed SPD chairman Gabriel in October,” he told reporters. “But I also have to say that the pressure on me increased in the last few hours to the point that I can’t carry out the tasks at this ministry anymore with the concentration, the calm and the political support that’s necessary.”

Merkel was furious about Friedrich’s actions, Deutsche Presse-Agentur reported, citing officials of her Christian Democratic Union it didn’t identify. Friedrich belongs to the Christian Social Union, the CDU’s Bavarian sister party, which holds three of 15 ministerial posts in her cabinet.

Merkel, 59, had an “intensive” phone call with Friedrich earlier in the day, Steffen Seibert, her chief spokesman, told reporters. He declined to say whether she urged him to quit.

In a statement lasting about two minutes after which she took no questions, Merkel lauded Friedrich’s achievements in office. With his resignation, he “once again showed his bearing, subordinating his interests to the greater good and accepting political responsibility regardless of the legal outcome,” she said.

Friedrich, 56, took over as interior minister in 2011 as part of a shakeup after Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg resigned as defense minister over plagiarism allegations. The SPD, then in opposition, criticized him last year after he returned from a trip to Washington saying he backed U.S. data-collection practices as a way to protect Germany against terrorism.

German news reports that SPD lawmaker Sebastian Edathy’s name had surfaced as part of an investigation and the disclosure that Friedrich informed SPD leaders have prompted dueling accusations over who knew what and when.

Gabriel, who is vice chancellor after leading the SPD into a coalition with Merkel, was told four months ago that Edathy’s name had emerged, though no accusations of wrongdoing were involved, Thomas Oppermann, the SPD’s parliamentary caucus leader, said yesterday. Gabriel’s office in Berlin didn’t immediately return a call seeking comment today.

Merkel needs to take the lead in clarifying the Edathy affair, including the involvement of SPD leaders Gabriel, Oppermann and Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, said Katrin Goering-Eckart, the co-leader of the Greens caucus.

“We want to know who had what information and when,” Goering-Eckart told reporters after Merkel’s statement.

Edathy, 44, resigned on Feb. 7 citing health reasons. He denied German media reports that he had been in possession of child pornography.

“I assume that the presumption of innocence counts for me as well,” Edathy said Feb. 11 on his Facebook page. “No criminal activity has been presented.” Edathy didn’t respond to a request for comment left on his mobile phone.

Edathy is suspected of downloading images of nude boys, though it isn’t clear whether the pictures constitute child pornography, prosecutor Joerg Froehlich said at a news conference in Hanover Friday. He said he was “incredulous” that details of the case had leaked.

Edathy led a parliamentary investigation into an underground neo-Nazi cell discovered in 2011 that carried out a murder spree over a decade. That probe laid bare missteps by prosecutors and domestic intelligence agencies for not uncovering the crimes, which targeted victims of Turkish origin.

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