Minister: Nothing to €1 million claim against Center, court agrees

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Minister of Public Administration Jaak Aab (Center) at a recent government press conference. Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR

Minister of Public Administration Jaak Aab (Center) says a claim against a Center Party-run electioneering firm has not been proven, following a recent court decision which found the same. The claim led to a precept from political finances watchdog body the ERJK, which required Center to to pay the firm in question €1 million for services rendered over a six-year period.

Aab says his party finds the claim by the company Midfield OÜ, owned by the party's former campaign chief Paavo Pettai, unsubstantiated, something the court agreed with, ruling on a technicality.

Aab said: "Both the committee and the court have confirmed that all the invoices submitted by Midfield and the services ordered by the party in the years 2009-2015 have been paid for by the party."

"It has been our position from the start that the claim is not proven and in the making of the injunction only Midfield's claims concerning too small a profit were taken into account," Aab continued.

Latest installment of Center court cases

The judgment is part of a long-running, multi-faceted and highly complex set of corruption charges and convictions attached to the Center Party and dating back to the days of its co-founder Edgar Savisaar as leader.

The corruption claims cover illegal donations, land swaps, bribery, money laundering and other misdeeds.

While Center had been supposed to have cleaned up its act, it was ironically a corruption scandal concerning a Tallinn real estate development which led directly to Jüri Ratas', the party's leader, resignation as prime minister earlier this month; in a double dose of irony, while Center's former coalition partners, Isamaa and the Conservative People's Party of Estonia (EKRE) are now out-of-office, Center itself remains, albeit in a government headed by Kaja Kallas (Reform).

Center wanted rid of ERJK

Jaak Aab was regional minister in the last administration and, after a brief stint as education minister, is back in that role in the new cabinet. Jüri Ratas has been tipped as new Riigikogu speaker, though who will be appointed is not likely to be clear until March.

The recent court ruling is also significant in that Center had tried to abolish the ERJK last summer via a bill which was filibustered out of existence by members of the opposition Social Democratic Party (SDE).

While Center wanted to nationalize the ERJK, which critics say is overly SDE-dominated, by placing its functions under the ambit of the National Audit Office (Rigiikontroll), the incoming coalition – which still features the Center Party, now in office with the Reform Party – says the ERJK could get beefed-up powers.

Timeline of Midfield case

The ERJK issued a precept to Center in April 2019, ordering it to return a  forbidden donation, on the grounds of incorrect procedure, including a lack of invoicing, which in effect stated that Midfield OÜ had conducted Center's election campaigns from 2009-2015, without invoicing or paying attention to other norms.

The sum ordered to be return came to €1 million, in the ERJK's precept.

The party appealed this and won, with Tallinn Administrative Court finding that, while the Center Party's complaints were not justified shortcomings pertaining to the evidence were overly extensive, prompting the annulment of the ERJK precept.

The court also left unchanged an interim injunction granted to Center on May 28, 2019, concerning the ERJK precept.

Center's lawyers, Toomas Vaher and Mailis Meier, said the court has drawn attention to significant shortcomings in the injunction by ERJK when it comes to establishing the actual factual circumstances. 

The lawyers said, in a joint statement that: "Neither the committee nor the experts on whose opinion the committee based itself subjected to a sufficiently critical analysis the expenses that Midfield allegedly incurred in connection with servicing the Center Party and whether these were correctly taken into account in the making of the injunction.

"The injunction made to the party, which the court annulled, is based on profit allegedly not earned, which Midfield as the provider of the service and ERJK considered to be too small. At the same time, the problem remains unsolved to this day that the committee has not identified what additional service has been provided by Midfield -- in a situation where all the  invoices submitted by Midfield and the works ordered by the Center Party have been paid for to the full extent over the years," the statement went on, BNS reports.

Court: Materials not presented in way they can be considered evidence

The administrative court found that confirmations allegedly sent via email to Pettai, which the latter did not forward to the expert in the case but instead printed out and which have subsequently been added to the expert assessment, cannot be considered reliable evidence.

The court found that: "This printout does not provide sufficient certainty for the court that the contract partner of Midfield OU has indeed sent such a confirmation via email. As Midfield OU has a financial interest in the resolution of this case, the company is not impartial and the documents presented by it must be viewed with reasonable skepticism. A confirmation in the form of evidence without a signature is likewise not reliable for the same reasons."

In short, the court said the ERJK had not collected enough evidence in its administrative proceedings, while simultaneously committing errors in evidence gathering which could have affected the total sum Center ended up being ordered to return to Midfield.

The ERJK can appeal the decision, the court said, or recalculate the sum – using the missing evidence where needed and available – which Center must pay.

At the same time, the court said the ERJK: "Needs to justify why it deems these explanations reliable or what other evidence there is that reliably enables to determine a link to the party.

Ultimately, the court said while the expert used in the case was appropriate and warranted, there were shortcomings in the collection of evidence which need to be eliminated.

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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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