Two businessmen brothers behind a wind farm project which has been subject to long-running legal disputes are having their affairs dealt with via finance minister Martin Helme (EKRE), circumventing other ministries and their regulatory authorities, Baltic News Service reports.
The brothers, Andres and Oleg Sõnajalg, have been involved in the legal battles surrounding the validity of construction permits for wind turbines at Aidu, in Ida-Viru County, but are now bypassing the relevant state agencies, according to BNS.
Director general at one of the authorities, the Consumer Protection and Technical Regulatory Authority (TTJA), Kaur Kajak, said he was summoned before EKRE ministers this fall, and was advised to treat the Sõnajalgs in a more favorable way.
Kajak was asked to attend the meeting on Sept. 17 by then-IT and foreign trade minister Kert Kingo, even though the TTJA falls under the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Infrastructure's aegis.
The meeting was also attended by the minister of finance, Martin Helme, and his adviser Kristel Menning, according to BNS, and followed the decision by the Supreme Court a week earlier that the wind farm construction permits were valid only certain conditions, including the height of the turbines not exceeding 185 meters. The first two turbines erected by the Sõnajalg brothers at this point had already reach 220 meters in height, which disrupts radar military radar in the area, it is claimed.
According to sources, Kingo opined at the meeting that as the Supreme Court had ruled in favor of the Sõnajalg brothers, the supervision proceedings regarding the Aidu wind farm should be terminated, and asked Kajak if he would be the one to compensate the developers for damages in the long-running case. The Sõnajalgs had yet to submit a claim for damages against the state at that point.
Kingo denies having put pressure on Kajak, BNS reports, adding that the meeting was nothing out of the ordinary. The damages claim had been a logical assumption, she added.
"We understood that [Kingo and Helme] wished to see the proceedings by the TTJA ended, but we explained once more the subject of the proceedings and the circumstances that had emerged as a result of which, the termination was not possible," Kajak said of the meeting.
Kajak added that since he had not been explicitly ordered to terminate the proceedings, he did not feel any pressure to do so. He deemed it necessary, however, to inform both the minister of economic affairs, Taavi Aas (Centre), and the secretary general of the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Communications, Ando Leppiman, of the meeting.
Kajak also approached the prosecutor's office regarding his rights and obligations, should the politicians take increased interest in the technical regulatory watchdog's proceedings, and informed Secretary of State Taimar Peterkop about what had occurred at the meeting.
A request for information submitted by daily Postimees reveals that since late April, when the government entered office, Oleg and Andres Sõnajalg have met with either Helme or his advisers Kristel Menning and Kersti Kracht on at least ten occasions.
What is most noteworthy is that Helme as minister of finance had any say in the matter whatsoever, since the field is part of the area of governance of the minister of economic affairs, Taavi Aas.
"I learned retroactively that this meeting had taken place, which is odd as the TTJA reports to me. I can only shrug my shoulders about proposals made by another minister or their adviser," Aas said, according to BNS.
Oleg Sõnajalg told the media a week prior to the government taking office that he hoped problems with the Aidu wind farm would be solved with the help of the new government.
The finance ministry's visitor data shows that Helme met with Andres Sõnajalg in his office a week and a half later, with the meetings subsequently becoming increasingly frequent.
Non-standard meetings a matter of concern
State officials regard the matter of concern for two reasons, according to BNS. First, the minister of finance is effectively conducting parallel proceedings into the Aidu wind farm, which is anomalous and entails corruption risks. Second, political pressure may render officials cautious.
"The Sõnajalg brothers frequently met with ministers this summer, and at some point, the ministers' position changed. The Sõnajalgs then went on to say that the issue had been decided," a source from the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Communications told Postimees.
A week after the meeting between Kingo and Kajak, the Oleg Sõnajalgs submitted a €123.7 million damages claim against the state, and also proposed a number of compromises including the sale of right of superficies at Tootsi wind farm in Pärnu County to the developers, and additional compensation. Two days later, Helme told commercial TV channel TV3 that the demands against the state had not been generated randomly.
On Oct. 2, Helme convened a meeting with Minister of Defense Jüri Luik (Isamaa), Taavi Aas, and a number of officials to discuss the proposals. A participant in the meeting said that Helme and Menning, his adviser, proposed that the state resolve the situation before an actual claim for damages was made.
Gunnar Vaikmaa of the Ministry of Justice said that the document did not in fact constitute a claim for damages, but an application for support, as it did not contain any grounds for damages. For instance, a debt from Eleon Green to Eleon, both Sõnajalg companies and so effectively a debt from the Sõnajalg brothers to themselves, had been presented as damages.
Helme's position was that paying the developers damages was a valid alternative to incurring larger losses. Menning applied for the Ministry of the Environment to take back its building rights case against the Sõnajalgs.
Prime minister's position not known
The Ministry of Defense and Ministry of Economic Affairs subsequently decided to boycott Helme's meetings on the brothers' wind farm, according to BNS. According to information available to Postimees, Jüri Luik, informed Prime Minister Jüri Ratas (Centre) of what BNS called unusual parallel proceedings, but it is not known whether Ratas interfered in the issue.
Andres Sõnajalg said that he has not promised the politicians anything for resolving the situation.
"Not one cent," Sõnjalg said, according to BNS.
"But this maladministration by officials must come to an end. We have realized that the TTJA is but a rubber stamp and an extension of the Ministry of Defence. We are citizens and we want freedom. We have innovation. If you don't get it, better keep your mouth shut and give us our freedom," Sõnajalg reportedly said of the matter.
Helme: Officials are harassing entrepreneurs.
"The bigger problem lies elsewhere. It is unacceptable to me, this idea that has prevailed in Estonia during previous administrations and is widespread among officials today, too, that entrepreneurs are thugs per se, and must be pestered," Martin Helme said, according to BNS.
Helme opined that the Sõnajalgs have not been treated fairly, and have been sent a lot of mixed signals.
"Essentially, [their] business is being driven towards bankruptcy," Helme said, adding that he does not deem his activities as conducting parallel proceedings to those by the technical regulatory watchdog.
Editor: Helen Wright