AK: Riigikogu speaker rejects misuse of public funds allegations

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Jüri Ratas boarding a yacht during the July 2019 visit to Saaremaa, while he was prime minister. Source: Government Office.

Riigikogu speaker Jüri Ratas (Center) appeared on ETV news show "Aktuaalne kaamera" (AK) Friday night, denying he had misused public funds during his time as prime minister.

Speaking to AK, Ratas said he had: "Only used these funds to cover public and prime ministerial work."

The interview followed an article in investigative weekly Eesti Ekspress earlier this week, that claimed that a four-day visit to the island of Saaremaa and some of its neighboring islands in July 2019 cost in excess of €12,000, with items allegedly including a two-master schooner chartered by Ratas himself to make the trip from Saaremaa's capital, Kuressaare, to the island of Abruka a few kilometers to its south, "[alcoholic] drinks for the car" and entertaining members of the then-prime minister's entourage at the Saaremaa opera festival.

Ratas had already responded in the media Thursday to the report, denying that the public purse was misused in an article which appeared in Postimees, whose media group is a rival to Eesti Ekspresses'

AK also quizzed the former prime minister, and current Riigikogu speaker, about a bouquet of flowers sent to a doctor who had operated on Ratas which was allegedly paid for on the government office tab and not out of his own pocket.

"I think the fact that if the prime minister notices any issues with his health, then he takes note of the doctor he went to and who did the job, and that is dignified," Ratas said.

He rejected claims he had had food baskets sent to him, at least using public funds, while spending weekends at his country home.

Ratas was prime minister from November 2016 to January of this year. He was also mayor of Tallinn 2005-2007, taking up office when he was 27 years of age.

Corruption allegations involving the Center Party and surrounding a Tallinn real estate development prompted his resignation in mid-January, though the party remained in office, in partnership with Reform.

Center was involved in lengthy and complex court hearings relating to corruption and the party's co-founder, Edgar Savisaar and his associates, with the loose ends of the case only tied up this year.

Another expenses scandal linked to the party led to the resignation of Mailis Reps (Center) as education minister late last year.

Ratas became Riigikogu speaker in March, though his name has persistently appeared in the media in relation to a potential presidential bid in autumn, when Kersti Kaljulaid's first term reaches its end. Ratas has neither confirmed nor denied he will run, though he has previously said he hoped a new president would be elected in the initial Riigikogu balloting stages, and not be a drawn out one (as it was in 2016 when Kersti Kaljulaid emerged as president – ed.).

As Riigikogu speaker, he would oversee the presidential ballots – which involve the 101 MPs, since presidents are not elected directly by the people.

Ratas appeared before the Riigikogu's anti-corruption special committee on Friday to answer questions.

Carina Paju, director of NGO Corruption-Free Estonia (Korruptsioonivaba Eesti), the Estonian arm of Transparency International, told AK that the reports had raised broader questions on the use of public funds, adding the question of imposing limits should be talked about.

Paju told AK that: "There is definitely the question concerning the share of expenditures, which increased in the pre-election period. In such cases, it must always be borne in mind that there should be a personal wallet, a separate party wallet and a public wallet."

Party advertising as might be expected reaches a crescendo in the period leading up to an election, but electoral rules impose a mandatory "dark period" about six weeks before election day, when outdoor, print, TV and radio and some other types of electoral advertising are barred; many questions of both illicit advertising and the use of public funds to pay for any advertising revolve around online articles and posts, once the dark period has kicked in.

The next direct elections are in October, to the local municipalities.

Opposition MP Eduard Odinets (SDE), corruption committee chair, said that one of the principles of accounting rules in force at the government office is one of economy, meaning the costs could have been lower.

This needn't mean a prime minister should have to serve guests meals on cardboard party plates, he said, but gifts and other extravagances should be kept to a minimum, he said.

"If you are going to visit Saaremaa, do you have to stay in the most expensive hotel eat at the most expensive restaurant on the island?" Odinets opined.

Coalition MP Valdo Randpere (Reform) , who is deputy chair of the Riigikogu's corruption committee, told ERR's radio news Friday afternoon that he found Ratas' explanations satisfactory, and rejected claims of corruption.

This was not least because it was after the fact – i.e. after Ratas' resignation as prime minister.

Randpere said: "I have always been skeptical of the kind of research that comes out when a person has resigned. We saw the same thing after Taavi Rõivas was prime minister, that people and things and conflicts started to be searched for there."

Rõivas was Ratas' predecessor as prime minister and lost a vote of no-confidence in November 2016, which saw both him and his party out of office and Ratas and Center installed. Isamaa and SDE remained as coalition partners.

Media allegations about Taavi Rõivas' behavior during a foreign trip started appearing only close to a year after he left office, and on the eve of the last local elections, in October 2017.

Opposition MP Priit Sibul (Isamaa), who also sits on the corruption committee, said that the matter should be taken in isolation and not compared with other, prior public cases.

"It makes no sense to start comparing things. It has to be determined whether public money has been misused, and what it has been used for, whether it has been used purposefully, economically, etc.," Sibul told AK.

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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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