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By Associated Press and Reuters
Austria’s Vice Chancellor, Heinz-Christian Strache, said Saturday that he is resigning after two German newspapers published footage of him apparently discussing state contracts with a potential Russian backer in return for political support.
Strache said Saturday in a statement before assembled journalists that he was illegally set up in a “political assassination.”
“It was dumb, it was irresponsible and it was a mistake,” Strache said, fighting back tears as he asked his wife and others to forgive him. He maintained, however, that he had done nothing illegal.
The scandal threatened to bring down the governing coalition between Strache’s anti-immigration Freedom Party and Chancellor Sebastian Kurz’s center-right People’s Party.
The video was reported on Friday by two of neighboring Germany’s leading media outlets — weekly Der Spiegel and newspaper Sueddeutsche Zeitung — purportedly showing a meeting in Ibiza between Strache, another party official and a woman purporting to be the niece of a Russian oligarch.
The two papers said the meeting, which took place months before the election that brought the Alpine nation’s coalition government to power, was clearly a trap laid to compromise the two politicians, though it’s unclear who was behind it.
In it, Strache appears to tell the woman she can expect lucrative construction contracts if she buys an Austrian newspaper and supports the Freedom Party.
Strache did not reply to a request for comment about the video. NBC News was not able to verify the authenticity of the footage independently, and the German newspapers did not say how they obtained it.
The Freedom Party (FPO) co-chairman, Christian Hafenecker, said on Friday the party’s lawyers were evaluating the material.
“Since the video was obviously recorded illegally, we are also preparing appropriate legal steps,” he said.
Vienna prosecutors said they would study the reports and decide whether there was sufficient cause to open an investigation, a spokeswoman for the prosecutors said.
“The FPO is finished,” ran the headline in the tabloid Kronen Zeitung, which featured in the video since the woman said the oligarch wanted to buy a stake.
Kurz is expected to make a statement later on Saturday as speculation swirled about whether the damage would be limited to Strache or if Kurz would call a snap election only a year and a half after the coalition was formed.
Kurz has repeatedly distanced himself from the FPO over lesser scandals to protect his popularity.
Strache said he would be replaced by Transport Minister Norbert Hofer, who narrowly lost 2016’s presidential election and is more popular than Strache.
“I do not in any circumstances want my wrong behavior to provide a pretext for the government to collapse,” Strache said.