The charges relate to the hugely controversial hostile takeover in February 2000 of Mannesmann, a German conglomerate, by Vodafone, a British mobile-phone company.
When Mannesmann’s management board capitulated, some of its executives (past and present) were paid bonuses totalling euro57m ($53m). Mr Ackermann sat on Mannesmann’s supervisory board—which, under Germany’s two-tier board system, oversees the management board that runs the firm—and the compensation committee that approved the payments. Paragraph 87 of Germany’s securities law says that such awards to board members should bear a “reasonable relationship to their duties”.
Payments of millions of dollars are familiar fare in Mr Ackermann’s investment-banking industry, if less so in mainstream corporate Germany. Deutsche, Germany’s biggest bank, paid $100m to Frank Newman in 1999 when his services were no longer required as boss of its newly-acquired American subsidiary, Bankers Trust.
A year earlier, Deutsche also paid millions to Frank Quattrone, head of its corporate finance boutique in California, just to be rid of him—probably money well spent given the havoc Mr Quattrone later wreaked at CSFB, the investment-banking arm of Credit Suisse.
So a few million euros spread among the top executives of Mannesmann may have seemed no big deal. But Binz & Partner, a Stuttgart law firm, thought otherwise. In February 2000 it alerted prosecutors in Dusseldorf, Mannesmann’s home town.
It believed that the payments represented an Anglo-Saxon “help-yourself” mentality that was invading Germany. Last week the court decided to let the case go to trial. Mr Ackermann and two others are charged with Untreue—“breach of trust”. Klaus Esser, Mannesmann’s then boss, and two colleagues are charged with being accessories.
Because of an incidental decision in a supervisory board role that he never wanted, Mr Ackermann’s career could come to an abrupt end.