Estonian investment banker Ragnar Meitern, who according Minister of Finance Martin Helme (EKRE) was the first person to contact Louis Freeh's law firm and is now working in his team, told ERR that he sees no conflict of interest in his work, adding that he was not part of the decision to pick Freeh Sporkin & Sullivan to represent Estonia.
What is your background?
I have worked in international banking as an investment banker and strategic adviser for almost 25 years. I have worked for the biggest financial institutions in the world – Citigroup, Standard Chartered and ING. That is my background. I'm also from Estonia originally.
How did you become involved with money laundering investigations?
I have kept an eye on things and been in touch with life in Estonia and what is going on here. And it is sad to look at how money laundering has been handled. Estonia has suffered a serious blow to its reputation that I'm sure local banks and other entrepreneurs will tell you.
At the same time, looking at parent banks in the Nordic countries, their reputation has not suffered nearly as much. That is why I have kept an eye on developments. When I realized the new government was looking to do something about it, I wanted to see if I could help.
How does that work?
I helped the Ministry of Finance and its team to establish contact with various companies. Because I have a relationship with the biggest and specialized law firms in America and London. That is where I helped.
What does that mean? Did you recommend a specific firm? Did you speak to [Minister of Finance] Martin Helme?
I first met Martin Helme in New York when we met with White & Case for example. (Martin Helme visited USA in October of 2019 – ed.) There are other firms I've put him in touch with.
But you are currently professionally associated with Louis Freeh's firm?
Freeh, Sporkin & Sullivan (FSS) is working with me in that I'm helping them in certain areas. To get an overview of the Nordic and Baltic banking system.
I also advise them on international banking and various money laundering topics. But only when they need it.
Did FSS turn to you after it signed a contract with the Estonian government?
I was in contact with them before. Because FSS was one of the companies I put Helme in touch with.
You developed a relationship with, sought out and are now employed by the firm that won the competition. Do you not perceive a conflict of interest here?
I do not see a conflict of interest. Because I was not among the people who organized the competition. That is why I do not perceive a conflict. I was never associated with the competition, the conditions and the final call.
How do you comment on accusations according to which three firms were asked to bid, while the minister already knew two would have conflicts of interest?
I believe there was no certainty. I know that the other firms placed initial bids and demonstrated willingness to represent Estonia.
As I understand it, they finally decided they had some sort of a conflict of interest or there was the problem that most firms decided they did not want to represent Estonia. Because they have wealthy clients that make them a ton of money. Banks and countries where money laundering originates.
You deny the claim according to which Helme aimed the contract at a certain bidder because of you?
I would definitely deny that, yes. It was not aimed at a specific firm. Several firms participated. Some were large and some smaller. Unfortunately, some firms decided not to bid in the end that only became clear once the conditions has been made known.
Where will you go from here in your work?
My role is rather modest moving forward. The bulk of the work will be done by FSS. They, as you know, are in Tallinn today (Wednesday – ed.) meeting with law enforcement organs to establish cooperation.
They will be taking the work forward. Of course, if they need strategic advice or to know some specifics, I will be glad to help.
Martin Helme's comment
He (Ragnar Meitern – ed.) was one of the people who helped us sift through, find and in some cases establish contact with the international law firms we were seeking.
Because he has long worked in the financial sector in London, had contact with that world, he has a very valuable phone book if you like. I expect that if he was in touch with these firms, they had an understanding of some sort for a commission should his agency prove fruitful. I believe it was more or less standard fare with all of them. I can assure you I was not involved and I never asked him how he sees it.
However, taking advisers along in the contract in the capacity of performance pay is not unusual in that world. While the opposition tries to claim that he worked for a single company all along, I believe he just worked toward achieving results.
A shorter interview with Ragnar Meitern and ETV's "Aktuaalne kaamera" news show (in Estonian), along with comment from Martin Helme, is here.
Editor: Marcus Turovski