Taltech clears itself of EU funds misuse

Homepage of Taltech's Ragnar Nurkse Department of Innovation and Governance.
Homepage of Taltech's Ragnar Nurkse Department of Innovation and Governance. Source: ERR

Tallinn University of Technology (TTÜ, known internationally as Taltech) has cleared itself of charges of misappropriation of European Union funds at its Ragnar Nurkse Department of Innovation and Governance (RNI), Baltic News Service reports.

The investigation concluded Friday, finding that the charges, principally concerning the OpenGovIntelligence (OGI) project at the RNI, were without basis. An internal audit Taltech conducted in early September, less than a fortnight after the story broke in the media, had already concluded same, as did a rectorate report a little over a month after that. The allegations first appeared in daily Postimees in August, following the actions of a whistleblower.

The whistleblower, Keegan McBride, a former staff member at RNI and current PhD student at Taltech, said he had approached Taltech rector Jaak Aaviksoo early on in the year with his concerns about potential funding misuse, recoursing to the paper when nothing seemed to have changed in this at the RNI.

Other investigations still to come

The RNI is still to be investigated by the European Commission, the source of the funds in question, however, and in mid-October, the prosecutor's office in Estonia said its own criminal investigation would be continuing regardless of Taltech's own internal findings.

On Friday, Taltech's audit committee unanimously found no evidence to support the allegations, including fraud, counterfeiting, corruption, fraud or benefit fraud, though it did identify a number of violations of university regulations, and made recommendations on how to avoid these in future.

Taltech also says that it will continue to cooperate fully and openly with all relevant external parties.

Taltech rector Jaak Aaviksoo added that the whistleblower had not cooperated fully with the university's own investigation committee and the council's audit committee.

"I am deeply disappointed that during the investigations, which started from a seemingly sincere act of whistleblowing, the whistleblower refused full cooperation with the university's investigation committee and the council's audit committee," Aaviksoo said, according to BNS.

The university also cited the Employment Contracts Act, saying the whistleblower, who is no longer an RNI employee, had not met loyalty obligations contained within this law.

Timeline of events

Daily Postimees broke (link in Estonian) the story on Aug. 22 this year, saying that in 2016, the European Commission allocated €267,500 from the Horizon 2020 program to the Ragnar Nurkse Department in relation to the OpenGovIntelligence (OGI) project.

However, following the whistleblower taking the story to the daily, Postimees wrote that the RNI had submitted false information to the European Commission, artificially inflating Taltech's working hours, including money being paid as wages to individuals, including professor Wolfgang Drechsler, who did not participate in the project.

A later piece revealed a conversation between head of the RNI, Erkki Karo, and the whistle blower, Keegan McBride, in which Karo effectively concedes that misusing EU funds had happened at the institute, but was a matter of pragmatism.

The practice was not right, and "sucks balls", Karo said, but was nonetheless a necessary coping mechanism, without which the research sector in Estonia would collapse.

Taltech staff and personnel other than Aaviksoo have also spoken on the matter. One report in late October revealed somewhat of a potential smear campaign against the whistleblower.

"I was told to be cautious of McBride," said Jaan Penjam, director of the university's software development department.

"[I was told] That here's a man who's willing to blow the whistle. And that we should not entrust him with secret and sensitive information," Penjam went on.

Professor Jaan Raik, head of TalTech's Center for Dependable Computing Systems at the School of Information Technologies and member of the Taltech audit committee looking into the allegations, penned an opinion piece defending the university, noting that the Karo recordings (see above) didn't change anything.

"There is nothing reprehensible about the head of the institute saying that its survival is a priority for him. The clips did not help shed light on our object of inquiry – the contribution of different scientists to the project. In short, we had no use for such information," Raik said.

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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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