Ratas: Freeh's conflict of interest isn't proven
Prime Minister Juri Ratas (Center) said the information published to date has not proven that a conflict of interest exists in the case of the U.S. lawyer Louis Freeh, hired as a partner for the Estonian government in the fight against money laundering.
Speaking during parliament question time on Wednesday, Ratas said: "I believe that when it comes to the topic of money laundering, there must be zero tolerance in Estonia at every time and every moment, both today and tomorrow. Not addressing this topic may have very serious consequences for the economy, but also security.
"Laundering of dirty money via Estonia may be used for attacking our interests, and the means garnered through it may be used in crime, such as financing of terrorism."
The prime minister recalled that in the previous government, with the Social Democrats at the table, a discussion took place on whether Estonia should represent its interests in the United States and whether concluding a relevant agreement was thinkable.
"The new coalition decided on March 26 to approve the draft of the agreement; at the same time, it was not known at the time with whom the agreement will be signed. That task was left to the Ministry of Finance and the objective was to get potential amounts of money in fines into the Estonian state budget," Ratas said.
He said the €3 million the government is paying is not out of the ordinary for legal services.
Ratas said the agreement with the US law office will be terminated immediately if either side no longer fulfils it.
"We can assess a potential conflict of interest based on two aspects: first, the assertion by the law firm itself that they are not in a conflict of interest. The second aspect is what the minister of finance says, who has said that there is no conflict of interest," Ratas said, adding that Estonia definitely needs a partner to represent its interests in the US, where the court system is very complex.
Ratas pointed out that during the period from 2008 to 2015, when the Reform Party was in power, the topic of money laundering was never discussed in the government.
Ratas said the U.S. Senate report says Freeh has had various meetings, but, at the same time, the report does not confirm Freeh being in a conflict of interest in the present case.
"Freeh has estimated that his activity as an attorney to date has not brought with it a conflict of interest," the prime minister said.
When it comes to assessments concerning the same topic offered by the Foreign Intelligence Service and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, they are contradictory in their content, Ratas said.
"The Ministry of Foreign Affairs recommended to choose from among the two first firms, who said that they will not make an offer in said case due to a conflict of interest," Ratas said.
He said it is not possible to assess a potential conflict of interest in the case at this point by any other means than proceeding from the assessment offered by the law firm.
He also described the whole topic related to Freeh as "secondary," which has been put in the focus "very skillfully" by opposition politician Jurgen Ligi.
"What matters is how Estonia fulfils its diligence requirement in combating money laundering," Ratas added.
Louis Freeh, former FBI director and leader of the American law firm Freeh, Sporkin & Sullivan was hired to provide legal services to the Estonian state in international money laundering investigations.
A United States Senate report revealed he has had several contacts with Russian authorities and a company involved with money laundering.
On July 3, finance minister Martin Helme (EKRE) entered into an agreement with U.S. law firm Freeh, Sporkin & Sullivan LLP to provide legal services to the Estonian state in international money laundering investigations.
Helme said at a press conference the fee for the contract with the law firm is €3 million for two years. The terms of the agreement have not been made public.
Kaja Kallas, chairman of the Reform Party, said that the possible drafting of a vote of no confidence in Minister of Finance Martin Helme over his hiring of a U.S. law firm will become clear on Wednesday.
Kallas told ERR the Reform Party has not had the opportunity to directly question Helme, and this will be done during the Riigikogu's question time. She said the party will not work on the text of the motion before that.
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Editor: Helen Wright