Lars Windhorst covered bill for Hertha Berlin smear campaign, probe finds

Invoices for a clandestine campaign aimed at ousting the former head of German football club Hertha Berlin were paid from a bank account “attributed to” financier Lars Windhorst, an investigation by one of the country’s top law firms has found.

Hertha Berlin commissioned law firm Noerr to conduct an investigation after the Financial Times revealed in September that Windhorst, the club’s majority shareholder, had hired Israeli private intelligence company Shibumi Strategy. The company orchestrated a campaign against Hertha’s then-president Werner Gegenbauer.

The revelation that Windhorst hired corporate spies plunged the Bundesliga club into crisis, straining relations between the financier and Hertha’s management. While Windhorst is majority owner of Hertha, he could not remove Gegenbauer directly without a vote from the club’s supporters.

In September, Windhorst and Ori Gur-Ari, the chief executive of Shibumi, denied pursuing a campaign against Gegenbauer, with the former calling the FT report “nonsense”.

However, the Noerr investigation found “tangible indications” that Shibumi staged a “clandestine campaign” against Gegenbauer in the 12 months to June, according to a document seen by the FT. Gegenbauer stepped down in May after 14 years in charge.

It was “sufficiently plausible” that Shibumi did conduct the campaign, the investigation found, adding that there was “sufficient evidence” Windhorst ordered the campaign and was updated about its “milestones”. The investigation pointed out that it could not be proven beyond reasonable doubt that Windhorst was briefed in advance about individual steps and whether he was involved on an operational level.

The law firm also established that Windhorst asked Shibumi to reissue three invoices to pay for the campaign in his name and that these invoices were then subsequently paid from “an account that is attributed to [Windhorst]”.

According to the probe by Noerr, Shibumi covertly approached Gegenbauer’s business partners and family members under a false pretext. “Individual targeted subjects confirmed that they were approached,” the law firm noted.

Windhorst and Shibumi denied the existence of the campaign in September despite Israeli court filings showing otherwise. Shibumi had sued Windhorst in an Israeli court, alleging that a unit of the financier’s company Tennor breached a contract under which it owed the corporate intelligence firm €1mn for eight months of work, as well as a €4mn success fee, allegedly agreed between the parties.

In September, law firm Quinn Emanuel, acting on behalf of Windhorst, sought to halt the publication of the FT’s story exposing the campaign, questioning whether the lawsuit filing — which was publicly available — had been lawfully obtained.

The campaign violated Windhorst’s duties to Hertha, the Noerr report concluded, but said their claims for damages against the financier had little chance of success.

Windhorst, who has invested €374mn in Hertha since 2019, has since agreed to sell his 64.7 per cent stake. US private equity group 777 Partners said last month it was willing to buy the stake if it received the necessary approval from Hertha and DFL, which runs the Bundesliga. Details of the deal have not been disclosed.

A spokesman for Hertha confirmed that the club received the investigation but declined to comment further. Windhorst and his investment vehicle Tennor did not respond to a request for comment. Shibumi did not respond to a request for comment. Gegenbauer declined to comment. Quinn Emanuel declined to comment.

The findings of the Noerr investigation were first reported by Business Insider.

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