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A Curious Cast, Money and Intrigue Entrance Viennese

August 8, 1996

VIENNA, Austria (AP) _ The cast featured a star journalist, a bankrupt car dealer, an allegedly corrupt state prosecutor and a blonde Russian businesswoman working undercover for police fighting the Mafia.

The plot _ and eventual trial _ that brought them all together was twisted and confusing. But it enlivened cafe chatter for months because it exposed the age-old custom of Vienna’s elite of settling their affairs via cozy connections rather than the letter of the law.

The denouement set Vienna freshly agog Wednesday, when all but one of the accused won surprising acquittals.

The ``trial of the year,″ as it was dubbed by local media, began with a wine- and whisky-laden evening last January in one of Vienna’s best known nightspots.

Peter Michael Lingens, a highly respected columnist, and Franz Kalal, a businessman reputed to have made a fortune from rental cars and underground garages, were enjoying a night out with their wives.

Lingens’ son Sebastian arrived with his fiancee. Talk turned to legal difficulties facing the Russian owner of the beauty salon where the fiancee worked.

That was when Lingens asked Kalal if maybe he could help. By his own admission, Lingens was alluding to Kalal’s buddy, state prosecutor Wolfgang Mekis, who headed a tax evasion probe against the Russian woman.

Kalal _ apparently affluent, but actually almost bankrupt _ wasted no time. The next day, he met the Russian, Valentina Hummelbrunner, in another central Vienna bar, calling himself ``Mr. Scotch″ and offering to help her avoid what he claimed could be 10 years in jail.

Within days, Hummelbrunner had $600,000 in schillings in an attache case, and handed them to Kalal at the swanky landmark Hotel Sacher.

Unknown to Kalal, Hummelbrunner was wired. The money had come from undercover police. Kalal was handcuffed on the spot. Hours later, prosecutor Mekis was arrested.

The case preoccupied almost every Austrian publication for months.

Lingens proclaimed his innocence, but the star columnist quit his job at a leading daily. His ex-colleagues cried wrongdoing. Another friend, Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal, started a petition to defend Lingens’ honor.

Then the journalist wrote the court a dramatic confession.

Two weeks ago, the speculation culminated in a trial that opened with teary testimony from Lingens and sensational suggestions from Mekis’ lawyer that Hummelbrunner was an agent for an undercover policeman who allegedly also was her lover.

Jokes about laptop computers flourished when it was learned the agent’s laptop was found in the bedroom of one of Hummelbrunner’s luxurious Vienna villas.

The agent, identified only by his code name OC-26, told the court he forgot the computer once ``somewhere between the kitchen and the entrance hall.″ He and the cool Russian both denied an affair.

The trial swirled on, confusing rather than clarifying events. Judge Paul Weiser put a fittingly sensational _ if temporary _ end to it all Wednesday by acquitting the state prosecutor, the journalist and a lawyer unwittingly embroiled in events. Kalal got three years for attempted fraud.

After six months in custody, prosecutor Mekis was free. Ignoring an ongoing probe into his alleged links with the Vienna underworld, he swigged champagne and threatened to sue for damages.

Lingens, crying again, confessed to having expected a guilty verdict.

Hummelbrunner _ not on trial _ learned that her accounts had been frozen because of a Russian probe into her fortune. Her husband is in custody in the Russian city of Ufa for allegedly embezzling $3.5 million from a local oil refinery. The money, it is suspected, went via Switzerland into Hummelbrunner’s numerous and well-stocked Vienna accounts.

The moral of it all? As a reporter summarizing the case for state television put it: ``It showed how certain society circles take it for granted that you can always cut a deal.″

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