Minister accused of intimidating Enterprise Estonia supervisory board as CEO steps down

Minister of Entrepreneurship Liisa Oviir. (Postimees/Scanpix)
11/17/2016 4:09 PM
Category: News

On Wednesday the supervisory board of Enterprise Estonia decided to recall CEO Hanno Tomberg. The decision followed criticism by Minister of Entrepreneurship Liisa Oviir (SDE), who had demanded that Tomberg’s contract be terminated. Former minister Anne Sulling accused Oviir on Thursday of having forced the move by threatening to sack the entire board.

Tomberg will step down on Nov. 26. His getting sacked is the latest development in the upheaval surrounding a grant to Ermamaa, the company of former president Toomas Hendrik Ilves, which had intended to build a tourism farm and conference venue at the location of Ilves’ country home, Ärma Farm.

Oviir said she found the supervisory board’s decision to let Tomberg go “wise”, as in the present situation Enterprise Estonia’s reputation was at stake, and the management was to be blamed for it.

Oviir takes heavy criticism, is accused of intimidating Enterprise Estonia’s supervisory board

Anne Sulling, who preceded Oviir in the office of Minister of Entrepreneurship and who until recently was a member of Enterprise Estonia’s supervisory board, wrote on social media on Thursday that Oviir had intimidated those who made the decision to recall Tomberg.

Several members had hinted that Oviir had presented the supervisory board with the choice of either sacking Tomberg, or in turn be sacked themselves. “With this in mind some members of the supervisory board calculated that it was in the interest of EAS [Enterprise Estonia] for some leadership to remain, as Oviir would appoint a board that would sack the management either way,” Sulling wrote on Facebook.

According to Sulling, the department heads of Enterprise Estonia sent the supervisory board a letter on Wednesday morning asking to keep Tomberg as CEO, as cooperation with the management had never been this good.

Chairman of the Supervisory Board Erki Mölder told ERR on Thursday that he wouldn’t comment, and told them to talk to Minister Oviir instead.

Viljar Lubi, the board’s deputy chairman, said to ERR that as Anne Sulling was no longer a member of the supervisory board, he didn’t understand how she had come into possession of this information. “This topic wasn’t discussed in this form,” Lubi said.

Criticism of Oviir continued in the Riigikogu on Wednesday, where MP Kalle Palling (Reform) grilled the minister for her volatile attitude in the matter. Palling pointed out that Oviir had first defended Enterprise Estonia’s decision to demand only 10% of the grant back from Ermamaa, but had changed her approach when attention to the issue didn’t subside.

Prime Minister Taavi Rõivas said that the greatest damage hadn’t been done to Enterprise Estonia’s reputation, but to that of President Toomas Hendrik Ilves. Ilves had suffered from negative attention despite the fact that he as an individual had done nothing wrong, Rõivas pointed out, saying that if a state authority or a part of it made a decision and a citizen then followed it, it was hard to understand how the same authority would change the decision a few years later and demanded of the person affected to act differently.

Oviir: Ärma Farm wasn’t only reason for letting Tomberg go

Oviir told ERR on Thursday that Sulling’s accusations weren’t true. At her meeting with the supervisory board, she had discussed issues one more time that had been problematic already earlier. After she had left, the meeting had continued for several hours.

The Ermamaa grant had not been the only reason why Tomberg had been let go, Oviir said. Enterprise Estonia’s failure to find and develop a new national brand as well as other projects having fallen short had played into the decision as well. The matter surrounding the grant had been a catalyst rather than the original reason to insist that Tomberg should be replaced.

About the responsibility of the 2012 management for how things had developed, Oviir said that what had happened couldn’t be blamed on someone that hadn’t been involved in this year’s decision to only demand 10% of the grant back. The option to increase the amount had existed, but had been disregarded, and the matter handled in a rush.

Ilves’ election in 2006 kept Ermamaa from putting business plan into practice

Though the grant had been approved before Ilves’ election in 2006, and though his being president hampered Ermamaa’s plans to develop Ärma Farm, Ilves declared only this year that he didn’t intend to use Ärma Farm according to Ermamaa’s business plan.

In 2012, the management of Enterprise Estonia, led by then-CEO Maria Alajõe, decided that in such a case, they would only demand 10% of the €190,000 grant back. This led to a public outcry, following which Minister of Entrepreneurship Liisa Oviir first defended the current management’s course of action.

When it turned out that the 2012 decision had included an option to reassess how much Ilves’ company should be asked to pay back, Oviir decided that the situation could have been handled better. She agreed with Enterprise Estonia’s supervisory board chairman, Erki Mölder that the matter shouldn’t have been handled as quickly.

Controversies surrounding the grant

Getting Ermamaa’s grant approved in 2006 had involved a committee of which Siim Raie was a member. Raie later became the director of the Office of the President. Another connection between Ilves’ company and his office was that Mai Piirmets, formerly an accountant at the Office of the President, was Ermamaa’s only management member at the time the matter became public.

Because of these connections, various investigations and audits were started, including hearings of the Riigikogu’s Anti-Corruption Select Committee, audits by both the Ministry of Finance and Enterprise Estonia, and the European Commission taking interest in the allocation of the money.

The Finance Ministry’s audit found that seeing as the facilities built using the grant had never been put to their intended use for more than six months, Ermamaa should be asked to pay back a substantially larger amount of money.

Editor: Dario Cavegn

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