Riigikogu speaker Jüri Ratas (Center) has rejected all charges of the misuse of public funds while serving as prime minister, in the wake of an article which claims a three-day working trip around Saaremaa in the summer of 2019 had cost the public purse over twelve thousand euros.
The article said that Ratas personally selected accommodation on the island as well as a schooner-type yacht which conveyed him to at least one of Saaremaa's offshore islands.
Meals at at least one top restaurant, and hosting an entourage of associates at the July 2019 Saaremaa Opera Days were also on the itinerary, which predated the coronavirus pandemic, Wednesday's article in investigative weekly Eesti Ekspress (link in Estonian) reported.
Speaking to daily Postimees Thursday, Ratas said: "If you now think that Jüri Ratas chose the hotels, then this was not the case.
"We have the Government Office, we have the protocol department, which always support the work of the prime minister and do so professionally," Ratas went on, as quoted by BNS.
Ratas said that he never had access to a government office credit card during his time as prime minister, also denying that any alcoholic drinks had been bought to his car, or that he had chose the vessel which transported him to the island of Abruka, due south of Kuressaare, Saaremaa's capital.
"There was a cruise meal on the boat at that point. What vessel it was, that was not for Jüri Ratas to decide, but there really is no other way to get to Abruka than by using a boat," Jüri Ratas said.
He also denied going to the opera on Saaremaa on the public tab.
"I definitely did not use money of the state for private entertainment at the opera days," Ratas said, noting that he engaged in his job as prime minister 24/7 with all his heart and joy.
Social Democrat MP Eduard Odinets, head of the Riigikogu anti-corruption select committee, has called for Ratas to appear before the committee to answer to the claims.
Fellow party-mates Jaak Aab and Tanel Kiik, public administration and health ministers respectively, have stood by the party leader and rejected claims he misused public funds.
Ratas was prime minister from November 2016 to January 2021. His name has been linked with a potential presidential bid this autumn, but he has not publicly declared his intentions at the time of writing.
Ratas had to step down as prime minister in January following a corruption scandal centering on a Tallinn real estate development and linked to his party.
Ratas told Postimees that the Saaremaa Opera Days had coincided with several scheduled meetings and appearances which would have made it "not nice" if he had attended the performances without those individuals. According to the Eesti Ekspress piece, the half-dozen individuals were from his close circle, potentially including advisers and security personnel, rather than local islanders.
He said he had no idea how an invoice came to have the annotation "drinks for the car" appended to it.
Ratas also said that then state secretary Heikki Loot had installed a separate budget entry for prime ministerial expenses during his time in office on his, Loot's, own initiative. Ratas speculated that this had been in the interests of budgetary clarity.
Eesti Ekspress is part of the Ekspress Meedia Group, while Postimees belongs to the rival commercial media group of the same name, as does BNS.
Editor: Andrew Whyte