Anti-graft panel head wants Ratas to explain expenses claims

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Prime Minister Jüri Ratas (Centre) visited several Western Estonian islands this week. July 2019. Source: Estonian government

The chairman of the Riigikogu anti-corruption select committee will propose the committee summon speaker of the Riigikogu Jüri Ratas (Center) to discuss thousands of euros of expenses claims paid by the Government Office during his time as prime minister.

MP Eduard Odinets' (SDE) call came after an article was published on Wednesday in weekly magazine Eesti Ekspress about expenses claimed for when Ratas served as the prime minister of Estonia. 

"The facts cited in the article in today's Eesti Ekspress concerning Ratas and the office of the prime minister raise serious doubts about the lawfulness of the spending by the former prime minister and seriously undermine the sense of justice of many people. The facts highlighted are not only ethically reprehensible but are also indicative of corruption. We are talking about the appropriate use of public money. It is the committee's direct duty to hear Ratas' explanations and then draw its own conclusions," Odinets said.

Odinets hoped that other members of the committee agree to a hearing.

"I hope that political considerations will not be an obstacle here and it will be possible already on Thursday to make a formal invitation to Ratas to appear before the committee," he said.

'Drinks for the car'

The article published by Eesti Ekspress (link in Estonian) analyzed the Government Office's expenditures in recent years and discovered purchases for tens of thousands of euros mostly for travel-related expenses in 2018. The newspaper said it was often confusing trying to establish which budget the expenses were paid from.

Eesti Ekspress journalist Holger Roonemaa told ETV's "Ringvaade" on Wednesday that the prime minister must have representative expenses but the paper also looked at non-protocol expenses.

"From an accounting point of view, it may be okay. But does the prime minister and his three political advisers need to have dinner at Pädaste Manor restaurant for €1,300? Is it okay to pay almost €1,000 for food and drinks when sailing to Abruka Island? Is it okay or not to send a bouquet of thanks to the doctor paid for by so-called taxpayer's money? In my opinion, this question of justification is a completely fair question to ask," Roonemaa said.

Among other things, Roonemaa said, Ratas spent a lot of money on weekly dinners that took place at Stenbock House between the five most important members of the government. Towards the end of the previous government, they took place several times a week. The food was ordered from "very good Tallinn restaurants".

Roonemaa also looked at approximately 20 interesting invoices submitted to the government office. "The ones that open up some background to us are Selver receipts or so-called "drinks for the car". Two bottles of gin, coming to 0.7-liters, a few bottles of tonic, some non-alcoholic cider. They have had to explain what the invoice is. /.../ As we understand, "drinks for the car" was often used as an explanation," he said.

At the same time, Roonemaa agreed that there was a budget for hospitality and spending remained within the established limits. But morally he was over the line.

"I don't think he's probably wrong about anything in terms of accounting. /.../ He's right about that. But I don't agree that good practices have been followed. When we go back to the gifts made to the Center Party, the flowers sent to the doctor, dinners, travel with advisers, etc., then I think this is not good practice," he said.

Ratas: I have kept government, party and personal expenses separate 

Writing on Facebook on Wednesday, Ratas addressed the claims and said he worked within the set rules.

"In my position as head of government, I always followed ethical and legal boundaries as well as my conscience and beliefs," he wrote.

"In my daily work, I have followed the usual principles - on birthdays it is polite to remember people, in the late evening, when holding meetings, participants should also be offered something for dinner, etc. In addition to formal meetings and gatherings, people must also visit the village to discuss issues in a more relaxed atmosphere. These are my principles and understandings. I think that all this goes to the office of the prime minister as well, and over the years I have followed it and considered it important."

He also wrote that as prime minister he had security and advisers which meant that on trips expenses were for the whole visiting delegation.

"From the first moment as prime minister, it has been clear that the activities of the government and the party, and of course personal expenses, must be kept separate and the budget for representation expenses for the prime minister must be stuck to. I have stuck to these limits," he wrote.

Tagasivaade peaministri tööle vastulauseks Eesti Ekspressis avaldatud käsitlusele. Hommikupoolikul rääkisime sel teemal...

Posted by Jüri Ratas on Wednesday, 12 May 2021

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Editor: Helen Wright

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