Opposition leaders have called for Minister of Rural Affairs Mart Järvik (EKRE) to resign, amid revelations one of his advisors is in involved in a case of potential conflict of interest concerning one of the organizations under Järvik's remit. The prosecutor's office has also opened up a criminal investigation into the advisor's actions.
Urmas Arumäe, an advisor hired part-time by Järvik in May, has continued working as a lawyer on behalf of eight clients in an alleged EU funding fraud case.
The defendants stand accused of trying to defraud the Agricultural Registers and Information Board (PRIA), by submitting deliberately false information to obtain higher investment subsidies. The sum involved is a little over €1 million.
Since PRIA falls under the rural ministry's remit, opposition leaders are making claims of a conflict of interest, and PRIA itself is claiming unfair treatment.
Reform leader Kaja Kallas has said that Järvik, already embroiled in another scandal surrounding a Listeria outbreak traced to fish packing company M.V.Wool which has been linked to the deaths of two people in Estonia and several elsewhere in Europe, should resign by Monday.
If he does not, Kallas says she will commence proceedings to hold a vote of no-confidence in Järvik.
"[Public broadcaster] ERR has written that rural affairs minister's adviser [Urmas] Arumäe is giving the minister advice which leads to the minister not to helping the state, but rather the people defended by his lawyer adviser," Kallas wrote on her social media account on Thursday, BNS reports.
"This time, it is serious, as the minister's adviser has a clear conflict of interests and the state must interfere with an entire criminal procedure," she continued.
"One thing is clear - neither the minister of rural affairs nor his adviser stand for the interests of the state in this saga, but are involved in skulduggery, to put it plainly. The minister is essentially obstructing justice, with his adviser, when he does not sign authorization enabling PRIA to handle the court cases of those defended by Arumäe. Minister Järvik has been aware of the conflict of interests for months already, but has not ended the employment relationship with his advisor. Taking into consideration Mart Järvik's extremely suspicious activity in the Listeria bacteria scandal, there is no doubt that this kind of a minister cannot continue in office," Kallas added.
Opposition Social Democratic Party (SDE) leader Indrek Saar has also added his voice to the calls for Järvik's resignation, BNS reports.
"This would be the first serious step by the current government, which moves rural life in Estonia forward. In the SDE's eyes, Järvik had already lost all credibility when he consistently lied and fibbed in the listeria scandal," Saar said, according to SDE spokespersons.
"Today (i.e. Thursday-ed), his new sins have come to light, demonstrating that Järvik does not serve the interests of the Estonian state and people, but has strongly encouraged his adviser to conduct corruption-risk activities which have led to the initiation of a criminal case," Saar added.
Prime Minister: No place in government for conflicts of interest or potential corruption
Prime Minister Jüri Ratas (Centre) noted the severity of the situation, by posting on his social media account at 2.12 a.m. Friday morning.
"The initiation of a criminal case against a ministerial adviser is a very serious signal. It also requires a single and adequate response from the minister himself," Ratas wrote, according to ERR's online news in Estonian.
The criminal investigation
Saskia Kask, chief prosecutor at the North District Prosecutor's Office, told daily Postimees that the prosecutor's office is investigating the case, adding that no crime has been implied at this point.
"After familiarizing ourselves with the requested documents, we will decide over the further course of the proceedings. No one has been served suspicion of crime at present," Kask said, according to BNS.
Timeline of Arumäe's appointment and PRIA case
Arumäe was hired by Järvik as an advisor, on a part-time basis and on a salary of over €3,000 per month, in early May.
In July Arumäe reportedly asked Järvik to reduce the size of the claims against his defendants in the PRIA fraud case, while he was still acting on their behalf.
Arumäe had said he no longer was personally representing the defendants, though one of his colleagues at his law firm had taken on the case, though according to ERR's online news in Estonian, he was still involved in work on behalf of the clients.
The ensuing conflict of interest also saw Järvik himself not signing a mandate which would allow the PRIA to file a claim for damages in the case.
Undersecretary of the Ministry of Rural Affairs Illar Lemetti told ETV current affairs show Aktuaalne kaamera that while he had requested a signature for the mandate from Järvik, none had been received and no explanation had been given why this was the case, even though the minister had signed similar documents in other cases.
On Sept. 10, PRIA director general Jaan Kallas sent a letter to the rural ministry, claiming a potential conflict of interest.
Arumäe: No conflict of interest
Urmas Arumäe himself told ETV investigative show Pealtnägija Wednesday that there was no conflict of interest.
"I'm not in a conflict of interest, I know very well what I'm doing. But I also know what the subject matter is, this alleged item has been raised, and I'm not at all comfortable being in this situation. I'm doing my job as a lawyer and I have not been in a conflict of interest, otherwise...I would have been dealt with by the Bar Association (Eesti Advokatuur)," he said, adding that the treatment of the issue was "stupid".
Minister Järvik himself was in China at the time and unable to comment; Pealtnägija noted that Arumäe had represented Järvik's son in a 2016 criminal case.
Aarne Mäe, advisor to EKRE, said it was too early to talk about any resignation.
"The government is doing its job, and the opposition is doing its job, and as of today, Järvik will definitely not step down," Mäe told BNS on Thursday evening.
Experts: Conflict of interest at the very least
Chair of Corruption-Free Estonia (Korruptsioonivaba Eesti) and former prosecutor Sven-Hristo Evestus told Aktuaalne kaamera that there was not only a conflict of interest, but also more serious degrees of corruption in play.
"In this case, it is clear that the lawyer involved in the criminal proceeds is making a profit. And if the lawyer uses his authority over the official, the Minister of Rural Affairs, to obtain more favorable situations for his client, it can be concluded that this is a power trading case," said Evestus.
Law professor at the University of Tartu Jaan Ginter said that Arumäe's firm as a whole should have stayed away from the case, given that Arumäe was now Järvik's advisor.
"What I don't particularly like about Arumäe is that while he himself said he saw the risk of a conflict of interest and retreated, the same function remained with his own law firm, another attorney at law," said Ginter.
Should the opposition parties initiate a no-confidence motion in Järvik, it would be the third such action since the current Centre/EKRE/Ismaa coalition came into office in late April. Reform initiated two such motions against interior minister Mart Helme (EKRE) either side of the summer recess, but both were defeated at the Riigikogu.
Riigikogu regulations stipulate that a minimum number of signatures must be collected for a no-confidence motion to be put before the Riigikogu, which will then be voted on by MPs.
The coalition government currently has 45 MPs across two parties (Raimond Kaljulaid joined SDE on Wednesday), compared with 56 MPs in the coalition parties.
Mart Järvik said last month that the first he had been aware of the M.V.Wool Listeria allegations was in mid-August, and even then from the ministry's internal informations system. However, ministry records show that Järvik had attended a meeting at M.V.Wool as early as June, at which the issue was reportedly discussed, and sent a letter on the matter to the Veterinary and Food Board (VTA) in early July - initially misaddressed but then sent to the correct address later on in the month - and received a reply from the VTA on Aug. 7, around a week before Järvik said he first heard of the issue.
The original ERR article including the Aktuaalne kaamera segment is here.
Editor: Andrew Whyte