United States lawyer and former FBI chief Louis Freeh broke his silence on a controversial deal signed between his law firm and the Estonian state earlier this year, for legal representation of Estonia in money laundering cases in America.
Freeh was in Tallinn Monday to appear before a Riigikogu committee to answer questions about the €3-million deal. The hearings to be heard in the U.S. will concern major Nordic banks such as Danske, which saw as much as hundreds of billions of euros in potentially illicit funds flow through their Tallinn branches in a roughly decade-long period, from the mid-2000s to the mid-2010s.
Freeh rejected claims of a conflict of interest in acting on behalf of Estonia in money laundering hearings in the U.S., principally in New York State, charges which opponents of the €3-million deal signed with finance minister Martin Helme (EKRE) in summer linked to Freeh having acted in respect of Russian firm Prevezon – which has alleged Kremlin links – which again Freeh rejected.
Freeh, who only arrived by plane from New York on Monday and went practically straight to Toompea to face the Riigikogu's state budget and anti-corruption committees, said that things had gone well.
"The meeting went very well. I was very pleased to meet the commission and make myself available for all their questions, so it was a good hearing," Freeh told news show "Aktuaalne kaamera"'s (AK) Priit Kuusk Monday night.
Freeh outlined his role as twofold, helping to restore Estonia's financial reputation internationally in the wake of money laundering scandals, in particular the one which hit Danske Bank (which had allegedly chanelled some of the Prevezon funds via its Tallinn branch – ed.), and to obtain any share for Estonia in a cut of damages arising from U.S. legal hearings.
"My purpose here is to represent Estonia, and to do two things, first, to ensure the reputation of the government and the banking system here, not just in the US but in the international banking community is strong, - because the money laundering has harmed the reputation of Estonian banking, so my job is to cooperate with the US and make sure the reputation is strong, and second, under the US mutual legal assistance treaty with Estonia, Estonia has the ability to receive and share in proceeds that the US government will receive if it prosecutes the Nordic banks and received large sums in terms of fines and forfeitures," Freeh said.
"I want to make sure Estonia is eligible for some of those funds."
Freeh said he thought some of the criticism leveled at him in the Estonian media and political community following the deal had been little short of hysterical.
"I understand criticism, but nobody really focused on what the conflict was, so I think we got some progress on that today."
Earlier on Monday and immediately after the Rigiikogu hearing, Freeh had told AK that: "We've read everything in newspapers from Freeh is an agent of the Kremlin, which I'm not – of course if I was I couldn't admit it anyway – but these are really nonsensical claims which I don't know how to respond to except to say our goal and interest here are only Estonia."
Freeh also told AK Monday evening that the allegations had been somewhat of a surprise to him and had even led to friends and former colleagues in the FBI to call him up and ask what all the talk about him working for the Kremlin had been.
With regard to the Prevezon case, Freeh said that he had been consulted by the latter's lawyer (Natalya Veselnitskaya – ed.) for his opinion, something which was standard practise.
"It's clear, as I told the commission, that there was such a conversation, but my role in the case was extremely limited. I was asked to evaluate the US government's offer to settle the Prevezon case, and Prevezon's lawyers asked me of my opinion of the offer, which is something lawyers do all the time," he said, earlier on Monday.
Ligi and Raik: Conflict of interest, lack of clarity still remain
Jürgen Ligi (Reform), chair of the Riigikogu's Special Committee on State Budget Control, however, told AK Monday that conflict of interest still persisted.
"The intelligence report says that he obtained the assignments from the Kremlin. So I don't know if he got the money. In the bigger picture, he has a conflict of interest in any case. It is known that the reports contradict his words - that he had meetings in Moscow," Ligi, a former finance minister, said.
The committee also questioned the role of Martin Helme, whom it said had met with Freeh as early as late 2019 (the deal, with Freeh, Sporkin & Sullivan, which Freeh was at the time senior partner of, was inked in late June – ed.).
In general, Freeh said that the questions had not been too numerous, that he was happy to cooperate, and that he thought that his answers had satisfied the committee.
He also told AK Monday evening that the next step was to get a confidentiality agreement with Prosecutor General Andres Parmas, who he said he had both met in person and spoken to on the phone, to add to the one already signed with the financial supervisory authority in Estonia which would satisfy General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) issues and make the information acceptable to be passed on to prosecutors in the U.S.
Meanwhile Social Democratic Party (SDE) MP and head of the Riigikogu's anti-corruption committee Katri Raik added to Jürgen Ligi's line by expressing concern over the confidential nature of the agreement.
"It is simply not possible for one man to take over, find an office and make a contract it, and as taxpayers we simply have to stump up the three million ourselves without understanding exactly what we are paying this money for, and to whom," Raik told AK Monday.
Criticisms of the deal had also revolved around confidentiality and the use of taxpayer funds, as well as Martin Helme allegedly acting unilaterally in the deal, and questions about the procurement process when Freeh, Sporkin & Sullivan was hired (two other law firms had reportedly been in the late running – ed.).
Jürgen Ligi and Katri Raik are both opposition MPs, Helme's party, EKRE, is in office, together with Center and Isamaa.
Editor: Andrew Whyte