German criminal probe into Steinhoff could still take 'several months'

Cape Town - German authorities are still in the process of sifting through a cache of documents seized during a raid on a subsidiary of embattled Stellenbosch-headquartered global retailer Steinhoff. 

The public prosecutor's office of Oldenburg in Germany told Fin24 on Friday that its investigation was still ongoing, and it could not say when it would be completed. 

Given the number of documents that have to be scrutinised, this could still take several months.

Steinhoff International Holdings has, since 2015, had its primary listing on the Frankfurt Stock Exchange. 

The German probe concerns four current and former employees of the company. The names of the employees, and what jobs they had in the global furniture and household goods retailer, have not yet been made public.

READ: JPMorgan R1.7bn loan loss said to be tied to Steinhoff

German authorities have not specifically named Steinhoff as the company under investigation, referring only to a company that owns a furniture retailer in the German town of Westerstede.

But multiple reports in the German media have named Steinhoff as the company referred to in the probe, while Steinhoff itself has admitted it is under investigation in a “criminal and tax investigation in Germany”. 

It has not, however, commented on the reasons behind the probe. 

Westerstede is the German headquarters of Steinhoff subsidiary Steinhoff Europe Group Services (SEGS). In 2015 late 2015, ahead of its listing on the FSE, Steinhoff confirmed that German authorities had searched the Westerstede offices of SEGS.  

Back in view

This investigation largely fell from public view until August 2017, when Germany's Manager-Magazin reported that then Steinhoff CEO Markus Jooste was among the employees being investigated by German prosecutors .

Steinhoff at the time denied the content of the article. 

But Jooste was the first head to fall on December 5, 2017, when Steinhoff announced that it was delaying the publication its 2017 audited financial results, and had retained PwC to investigate “accounting irregularities”. 

Its shares have since lost around 85% of their value. Jooste, meanwhile, has not spoken to the media since resigning. As of January 12, the financial statements have still not been made public.  

German prosecutors told Fin24 in a statement that the four current and former employees were being investigation on suspicions of falsifying balance sheets. 

This, they say, may have inflated the book values of companies linked to the four employees. 

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