MP Kert Kingo (EKRE) says the coalition's bill to remove the Political Parties Financing Surveillance Committee (ERJK) is justified, since there are question marks over its political independence. The commission's hierarchy is Social Democratic Party (SDE)-influenced, she said, facing questions at the Riigikogu Monday afternoon. Opposition MPs say the real driving force behind the bill is for Center to avoid scrutiny over its finances.
"The purpose of the bill (the Bill on Amendments to the State Audit Office Act, the Political Parties Act and Other Acts Act (Political Party Financing Control Body) 193 SE I-ed.) is to make monitoring of the financing of political parties, electoral alliances and individual candidates more professional, and for this purpose the supervisory power will be given to the State Audit Office (Riigikontroll)," Kingo, a former IT and foreign trade minister, told the Riigikogu.
As reported on ERR News, a motion tabled by the two opposition parties, Reform and the SDE, to strike off the bill, was voted down at the Riiigikogu on Monday.
ERJK questionable in its independence
On being asked by opposition Reform Party MP Kalle Laanet what prompted the initiation of this bill, Kingo said that since its members are generally members of political parties, the ERJK is not independent.
"The ERJK monitors the funding of political parties. And now there is a situation where it monitors its own activities. In other words, there are five members in the commission who are themselves interested in keeping things as 'soft' as possible. This means that we cannot talk about independence here. They are partisan, and the main thrust of this amendment is to transfer this activity to a completely independent body," said Kingo.
Kingo subsequently said that she had not said the commission was not independent, simply that this could be held up to question.
"I have not said that it is not independent, I said that it does not meet all the criteria for independence."
Center MP Signe Riisalo asked Kingo to outline what the criteria for independence would be, in her view.
"There must be no people in the committee who could have any interest," Kingo replied.
Opposition: Real reason for haste is for Center to cover up financial woes
The two opposition parties, who together have 44 seats at the 101-seat chamber (Reform is the largest party by number of parliamentary seats), say that the real reason the coalition wants the reforms is to obscure the debts held by the Center Party.
The Riigikogu has an anti-corruption committee, which wanted to discuss the issue ahead of debating the proposed law. Committee chair Katri Raik (SDE) tabled this last week, ERR's online news in Estonian reports, but this was voted off the debate agenda Monday under EKRE's leadership (speaker of the house Henn Põlluaas is an EKRE member-ed.).
Raik noted that in her opinion the coalition does not really want to discuss party funding oversight in depth.
"I find it very strange that we want to look at this issue very quickly, before September 21, when the Center Party is facing a lawsuit over a €1.2 million," Raik said.
Kingo: ERJK SDE-influenced
Kert Kingo noted that the ERJK chair, Lissa Oviir, is an SDE member (and former MP – ERJK members may not be sitting MPs-ed.) and deputy chair Kaarel Tarand has, she said, close relations with the same party (according to the commercial register he does not belong to any political party; his brother, Indrek, ran for SDE at the March general election and May European election last year, though is also not a party member-ed.).
"The current commission, which is largely made up of party representatives, then, in principle, oversees themselves, which certainly makes it not independent and certainly no prevention for corruption, which we are dealing with nationwide here; we are constantly preventing and fighting corruption," said Kingo.
On the issue of whether the proposed bill to remove the ERJK is unconstitutional, Kingo said that since she is not a member of the Riigikogu's constitutional committee, she couldn't say. Subsequently, she said that she did not think the bill unconstitutional, however, ERR's online news in Estonian reports.
Bill would remove Pettai donation case from the table
Reform MP Hanno Pevkur aid a situation where people alter the law in the interests of one party constitutes political corruption. Pevkur also noted that a component of the bill which would mean financial injunctions against parties would have a three-year shelf life was also potential corruption.
In July 2018, the ERJK found that the bulk of a €250,000 transfer from a company owned by Paavo Pettai to Center, ostensibly for a share in a property purchase in Tartu, constituted an illicit donation, and ordered Center to pay the same amount into state coffers. Center appealed the decision; in December 2018 the Supreme Court upheld this decision, giving the party 30 days to make payment. The sum is still outstanding.
Another problem, Pevkur said, is that if the ERJK is wound up while claims are still in the courts, the issue of who will process these further also arises – there are no implementing provisions for this in the bill as is, he said.
Questions as to how and why party financing oversight would work better under National Audit Office's aegis than as a body unto itself
Another Reform MP, Aivar Sõerd, asked Kingo how the work of one supervisory and control body would be assessed, i.e. how party financing monitoring would be itself monitored, particularly with regard to court cases, if it came under the National Audit Office's remit.
"I argue that one of the criteria for evaluating work is definitely whether the precepts and requirements issued by this inspection body remain at court or not. If poor quality material goes to court, an administrative court will throw it out. If case law is not a quality evaluation criterion, please explain what these quality assessment criteria actually are," Sõerd enquired.
Kingo noted that she had not been involved in ERJK work, so again couldn't definitively say.
"I am not the person to give an assessment of the commission's activities, because I have not been involved in its proceedings. However, it is always possible to do everything much more efficiently," Kingo replied.
"Whereas this committee (i.e. the ERJK-ed.) currently meets once a month, then the National Audit Office has someone at work every day. This means that it is possible to handle and deal with more cases," she added.
Editor: Andrew Whyte