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From Jet Set To Prison Time, Advice From A Fallen German CEO

German CEO Thomas Middelhoff walks free after a three-year sentence
German CEO Thomas Middelhoff walks free after a three-year sentence
Karin Matussek

AUGSBURG — One moment you're the globetrotting head of a corporation with an army of subordinates to execute your every order, the next you're behind bars and required to file requests for items as banal as toilet paper.

While jailing executives, particularly those of global companies, is an almost unheard of occurrence in Germany, that's just what happened to Audi Chief Executive Officer Rupert Stadler last month. One of the few other corporate leaders to suffer a similar fate was Thomas Middelhoff, and he has some words of advice to adapt to the circumstances.

"You need humility, otherwise you'll crack," said Middelhoff, who led media company Bertelsmann AG and retailer Arcandor AG. "It's a process: the first reaction is inner revolt. Then there's a combat phase, then the breakdown. Only after that, you start becoming yourself again."

Middelhoff went from CEO with a rock-star allure and jet-set lifestyle to a convict who served a total of two years for misappropriating 500,000 euros worth of corporate funds for helicopter and private-jet trips, charges that he denied. It was a startling decline for one of the country's best-known managers, who rode the corporate rocket to the very top, including private jets, yachts moored in Saint Tropez and regular board meetings in New York.

His life took a dramatic turn in 2014, when Middelhoff was whisked straight out of court and transferred into a sparse prison cell the day he was convicted. He was detained even though he planned to appeal, as the judges suspected he would flee. He spent five months in preliminary detention and "when the door shut for the first time, it was a feeling as if the air had been drawn from my lungs," he said. "My head was spinning."

He will survive this without damage to his soul.

For managers used to guiding other people, being under seamless scrutiny is hard to comprehend, Middelhoff said. For each item he needed, Middelhoff had to file a written request; cell phones and computers weren't permitted at all. Meetings with lawyers meant body searches before and after each encounter, family visits were restricted to twice a month — and only for three people, a tough situation for Middelhoff, who has five children.

"When my wife came to see me for the first time, I wept," Middelhoff said. He's since documented his experience in prison in a book he began working on in jail, where he started the day at 5 a.m. reading the Bible, followed by a work-out regime that included 100 push-ups. Middelhoff spent his preliminary detention segregated from other prisoners to protect him from possible attacks. After five months, he was released on bail. When his appeal was rejected, he served the rest of his sentence working outside prison walls at a charity.

Not much is known of Stadler's daily routine behind bars, near the Bavarian city of Augsburg, where he was taken after his arrest in the early hours of June 18. Prisoners can ask to wear their own clothing and have access to TV and the prison library. They can request a separate cell, though most prefer to stay with other inmates to avoid isolation. Germany's Bild posted stock photos of a cell, complete with the daily menu, a sparse fare of potato salad and meatballs, or schnitzel with pasta.

Stadler's attorney Thilo Pfordte didn't immediately return a call seeking comment.

Rupert Stadler attending annual Audi meeting just weeks before his arrest — Photo: Armin Weigel/DPA/ZUMA

A Volkswagen veteran who ascended to the top of Audi in an almost three-decade career, Stadler held onto his job in the last three years even as accusations of his company's involvement in the diesel-rigging scandal grew. A week before his arrest, his private home was raided, but the company stood by him, saying he should be presumed innocent until proven otherwise.

While Stadler hasn't been charged, he was detained because of suspicions of evidence tampering. He is suspected of fraud and falsifying public documents in connection with the three-year diesel cheating scandal that's rocked Volkswagen since 2015, and prosecutors will continue to question the executive this week.

Stadler's arrest came as "a huge shock," VW CEO Herbert Diess told the Bild am Sonntag newspaper. While he's presumed innocent, he'd be barred from returning to the company should the allegations turn out to be true, Diess said.

Pre-trial detention typically comes with tough conditions, and prosecutors often leverage media coverage of celebrities in jail to increase pressure to cooperate, a practice that's also on display in Stadler's case, Middelhoff said.

"The real scandal is that none of his colleagues are speaking up for Stadler, and that's why I wanted to do it," said Middelhoff. "I wish him a lot of strength, and the confidence that he will survive this without damage to his soul."

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In Northern Kenya, Where Climate Change Is Measured In Starving Children

The worst drought in 40 years, which has deepened from the effects of climate change, is hitting the young the hardest around the Horn of Africa. A close-up look at the victims, and attempts to save lives and limit lasting effects on an already fragile region in Kenya.

Photo of five mothers holding their malnourished children

At feeding time, nurses and aides encourage mothers to socialize their children and stimulate them to eat.

Georgina Gustin

KAKUMA — The words "Stabilization Ward" are painted in uneven black letters above the entrance, but everyone in this massive refugee camp in Kakuma, Kenya, calls it ya maziwa: The place of milk.

Rescue workers and doctors, mothers and fathers, have carried hundreds of starving children through the doors of this one-room hospital wing, which is sometimes so crowded that babies and toddlers have to share beds. A pediatric unit is only a few steps away, but malnourished children don’t go there. They need special care, and even that doesn’t always save them.

In an office of the International Rescue Committee nearby, Vincent Opinya sits behind a desk with figures on dry-erase boards and a map of the camp on the walls around him. “We’ve lost 45 children this year due to malnutrition,” he says, juggling emergencies, phone calls, and texts. “We’re seeing a significant increase in malnutrition cases as a result of the drought — the worst we’ve faced in 40 years.”

From January to June, the ward experienced an 800 percent rise in admissions of children under 5 who needed treatment for malnourishment — a surge that aid groups blame mostly on a climate change-fueled drought that has turned the region into a parched barren.

Opinya, the nutrition manager for the IRC here, has had to rattle off these statistics many times, but the reality of the numbers is starting to crack his professional armor. “It’s a very sad situation,” he says, wearily. And he believes it will only get worse. A third year of drought is likely on the way.

More children may die. But millions will survive malnutrition and hunger only to live through a compromised future, researchers say. The longer-term health effects of this drought — weakened immune systems, developmental problems — will persist for a generation or more, with consequences that will cascade into communities and societies for decades.

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