Yellow gloss tarnished

PostBus was an exemplary company. Then a subsidy scandal erupted which was unprecedented in Switzerland. The matter has still not been fully resolved. How did this situation arise?

The scandal has tarnished PostBus’s gleaming image, and Swiss Post CEO Susanne Ruoff paid the price in June by resigning from her position. Images: Keystone

PostBus travels through mountain passes, providing transport to the most remote valleys and far-flung villages. It covers areas where bakers, butchers, village shops and, yes, even the Swiss Post Office have long since closed their doors. A bus, even if only every few hours, is part of universal service in Switzerland. The yellow postal buses are a symbol of public service. They connect towns and villages and, in a sense, hold the country together.

The yellow gloss has now been tarnished. The drivers wearing light yellow shirts no longer just have to explain to passengers where to get off or change buses. They now have to tell them why their employer fraudulently obtained subsidies for many years. PostBus systematically moved money around using accounting tricks to make the subsidised bus routes seem less profitable than they really were.

The upshot was that federal government and the Swiss cantons paid excessively high subsidies for almost ten years, from 2007 to 2015. They handed over 92 million Swiss francs too much, according to Federal Office of Transport (FOT) calculations. The FOT has already demanded the repayment of some of that amount – 13.7 million – as part of a previous adjustment. PostBus wants to repay the rest of the money, too. But the figure could yet rise. The FOT has revealed that PostBus also received undue subsidies in the post-2015 period, effectively right up to the present day.

The only thing that has changed is the procedure. Swiss Post established a holding structure in 2016. The FOT criticised this move because it believed the company’s units would charge each other inflated prices for reciprocal services. Was the intention simply to obtain subsidies by fraudulent means using a subtle trick? This is what the ongoing investigation aims to establish. Swiss Post repeats this sentence almost every day at the moment. The current investigation is seeking to determine whether Susanne Ruoff, the Swiss Post CEO who resigned in June, and her predecessors turned a blind eye while millions of Swiss francs in public funding was fraudulently claimed. It is also looking into whether the dismissed PostBus CEO was sacrificed as a scapegoat. Finally, it is seeking to find out why all of this happened at all. The motive in this case is the biggest mystery.

PostBus ultimately deceived its own owner. The fraudulently obtained money stayed in the company. What lay behind it all? It is conceivable that some of the PostBus management would have received higher bonuses for improving performance.

The real reason may actually lie in the company’s bizarre dual role. PostBus travels from village to village and receives subsidies in return. But PostBus also takes tourist groups to Burgundy and Piedmont, has bus networks in France and invests in Publibike, a bike hire scheme. The company does not receive subsidies for these activities. The aim here is profit rather than making villages accessible.

The dismissed PostBus CEO also pointed to a “conflict of interests”. Should transport from one village to the next be provided as cheaply as possible to avoid causing unnecessary expense to the taxpayer? Or should public money be claimed where it doesn’t really do any harm to expand and invest in order to achieve internal profit targets? The answer is obvious. Subsidies must be minimised before profits can be maximised. However, operating in that space between public service mandate and market orientation, as well as the organisational proximity of these completely contrasting units, must have led to confusion in this regard.

YVONNE DEBRUNNER is economic affairs editor at Tamedia

Comments (8)
  • Wave Dancer
    Wave Dancer at 25.07.2018
    Der Skandal um die Postauto AG ist ein Spiegelbild wie die politische Elite staatseigene Firmen führt und ist mit Sicherheit nur die Spitze des Eisberges! Selbstverständlich werden Verantwortliche mit Samthandschuhen angefasst, mit exorbitanten Pensionen u. entschädigungen "ausgemustert" od. sogar, nach einer kleinen, aber gut bezahlten Pause, wieder in den Staatsaparat eingeschleust! Der Dumme dabei ist IMMER der Bürger! Dies wird solange gehen bis dann irgendmal die Leute genug haben und dem Treiben ein Ende machen - gewaltsam!
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    • Bertiz Benhamid
      Bertiz Benhamid at 26.07.2018
      Wave Dancer - Genau auf den Punkt gebracht.
      Show Translation
    • Rolf Gerig
      Rolf Gerig at 31.07.2018
      Der Schwur von 1291 war vergebens. Es dauerte nicht lange, bis die frühen Eidgenossen selber zu Tyrannen wurden. Die Habsburger sind wir nie losgeworden! Sie haben sich so gescheit angepasst - je nach Zeiten - , dass das Volk sie nicht mehr erkennen kann.
      Show Translation
  • Bertiz Benhamid
    Bertiz Benhamid at 26.07.2018
    Is money the Root of All Evil? No, money is not the root of all evil - humans are.
    Show Translation
  • Adnane Ben Chaabane
    Adnane Ben Chaabane at 26.07.2018
    Et par ailleurs cette même poste fédérale se permet de ne pas vouloir ouvrir des comptes aux suisses non résidents.
    Un service public qui bouffe à tous les plats. Subventions, prix du service excessif ….
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    • Michel Piguet
      Michel Piguet at 27.07.2018
      Ce qui serait intéressant, ce serait d'en connaître la raison de ce refus d'ouvrir des comptes pour les non résidents.
      - Est-ce une directive d'état? Pourquoi?
      - Est-ce une lubie de la direction? Comment est-ce possible?
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  • Geli Wörz
    Geli Wörz at 28.07.2018
    Weil ich seit 1992 nicht mehr in der Schweiz sondern in Frankreich lebe, wollte meine Bank - Raiffeisen - doch plötzlich glatt 150 bis 250 Franken monatliche Kontogebühren einfordern. Da musste ich natürlich passen und das Konto kündigen. Allerdings hatte ich da schon lange ein Konto bei der Post und dort sind die Gebühren zwar auch hoch genug, aber doch zahlbar.
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  • Sima Mer
    Sima Mer at 29.07.2018
    I very much agree with Bertiz Benhamid. We as human should discipline ourselves to respect each others rights, control the greed, avoid immoral, unethical behavior...
    Show Translation

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