Berlin (MunichNOW News/dpa) – Germany’s agriculture minister resigned Friday after a controversy over his tip-off to the Social Democratic Party (SPD) that one of its legislators was named in a child pornography inquiry.

Hans-Peter Friedrich’s resignation is the first major blow to Chancellor Angela Merkel’s new, two-month-old coalition government.

“I have told the chancellor I am offering my resignation,” Friedrich told reporters, hours after he had defended his decision, while he was interior minister, to warn the SPD in October about the inquiry.

Merkel said she was accepting his departure “with regret,” but it was too early to appoint a replacement.

Sebastian Edathy -- photo: dpa
Sebastian Edathy — photo: dpa

SPD legislator Sebastian Edathy, 44, resigned his seat this week when it was revealed he had been accused of buying lewd images of pre-teen boys from an online shop between 2005 and 2010, downloading some to a parliamentary computer.

Merkel’s government, formed in December, links her own centre-right bloc and the centre-left SPD. It has had a rocky start, facing criticism over a spending splurge. Easing austerity, it has ordered bigger retirement pensions for older manual workers and for mothers.

Critics charged that the tip-off, which a Friedrich spokesman described as a “confidence-building measure” at a time the conservatives and the centre-left SPD were still negotiating a coalition accord, was a breach of official secrecy.

Friedrich, a lawyer who is a senior figure in the conservative Bavaria-based Christian Social Union (CSU), said he remained convinced he “acted properly.”

Explaining his decision to leave, only hours after affirming he would hang on, he said the pressure on him had grown hourly Friday and was a distraction from his portfolio.

“My job cannot be accomplished without political support,” he added.

“It is not the time to speak of a successor,” Merkel told reporters, adding that the CSU would nominate a fresh agriculture minister.

The finger-pointing as the controversy grew this week threatens to poison relations among the Merkel coalition parties.

SPD leader Sigmar Gabriel, now economics minister, faces demands to explain which aides he told about the warning.

Opposition politicians demanded the SPD reveal on the floor of parliament what Gabriel and his aides knew when the Edathy inquiry was still under wraps and how that information spread.

“We don’t rule out setting up a parliamentary inquiry into this,” said Bernd Reixinger, co-leader of the leftist Die Linke.

“An investigation is necessary,” said Katrin Goering-Eckardt, caucus co-leader of the Green Party.

Merkel’s party concurred, but in less strident words. “It’s up to others now to contribute their part in explaining these allegations,” said Peter Tauber, general secretary of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU).

Edathy was apparently already aware of the inquiry in November, hiring a defence lawyer, well before police searches of his home and offices this week, but it is not known who told him.

Prosecutors are studying formal complaints that the tip-off breached German secrecy law or that it may have impeded a police inquiry.

But a decision on whether to open a possible formal inquiry with Friedrich as suspect is well in the future. The prosecutors said they would not meet till next week to agree who will handle that file.

The allegations cut short the political career of Edathy, who won plaudits last year as chairman of a parliamentary inquiry into intelligence failures during a killing spree against immigrants by a covert neo-Nazi gang.

He had been tipped last year for a government post, but instead his career went nowhere after the tip-off. He resigned from parliament on Tuesday, but in a statement denied committing any offence.

The inquiry began last year when a porn business was busted in Canada.

A senior prosecutor in Hanover said Edathy was under investigation for nine purchases of lewd videos and “photo sets” of boys. Two of the purchases were downloaded to Germany’s parliamentary computer system and the rest were fulfilled by post.

“The material involved is pictures of nude male boys aged 9 to 13, perhaps 14,” said senior prosecutor Joerg Froehlich, who conceded that certain other local prosecutors did not regard such images as pornographic.

Froehlich said he was “shocked” that politicians were aware of the inquiry before police searched Edathy’s home and offices.