The National Audit Office has found that the city government of Tallinn, run by the Center Party and led by Edgar Savisaar, used over 300,000 euros of its advertising and communication funds in 2013 to run "awareness campaigns" that could be interpreted as election advertising for a politician or a party.
The audit office said that it is not unlawful for local authorities to use politicians in awareness raising campaigns and communication activities, but the aim of this cannot be image building or election advertising for the individuals featured in them. The audit also pointed out that campaigns which allegedly had these ends in mind, cost the city of Tallinn 337,000 euros in 2013 alone.
The audit office found that Tallinn has not acted in the best interest of the public, when funding election campaigns of politicians or a party, and has thus gone against the Local Government Organization Act.
It was also pointed out in the report, released on Tuesday, that such spending is tied to the election cycle. If from August-October 2012 Tallinn spend only 12 percent of its annual TV advertising budget, this figure was 93 percent in the same period of 2013. The majority of the TV commercials aired on behalf of the city at that time carried a political message. It was also noted that events that in other times would not have been massively publicized - completion of investment projects for instance - suddenly rose into focus.
Tallinn denies misusing public funds, claiming that their campaigns served the best interest of the citizens by providing them with information about what the city has been up to. The audit office said that the question is not whether parts of the campaigns did what the city claims, but that they also included elements of election campaigning that served private interests.
"There is a reason to believe that the political impact of these campaigns was premeditated. This makes the campaigns illegal, regardless of whether they had other, lawful aims, or not," the audit office explained.
"Using the funds of local authorities on this kind of advertising is an example of misappropriation of power that gives the perpetrator an unfair competition edge and is a threat to democracy," it said, adding that the legislation is currently unable to put an end to this practice and needs revisions.
Local authorities spend a total of around 4-5 million euros a year on awareness and communication campaigns.
The National Audit Office identified 10 public awareness campaigns in Tallinn and one in Tartu that served as election campaigns for the 2013 local elections. The most expensive were three video clips, used to advertise renovated children's playgrounds (with an attached promise to create more kindergarten places; 105,606 euros), services for the elderly (101,758 euros), and Tallinn marathon (86,126 euros).
CORRECTION: A previous version of the story stated that the City Council, not the City Government, allegedly misspent the funds.
Editor: P. Luts, M. Oll