Former minister embezzlement ruling put back to after 2023 general election
A county court decision on embezzlement charges lodged against a former government minister may not be made until spring 2023, after the general election in March of that year, and close to two-and-a-half years after the first media reports which led to the allegations were published, ETV news show 'Aktuaalne kaamera' (AK) reported Friday.
The delay relates to a variety of technicalities, clashes of diary dates and court schedules, with prosecution, defense and judge seemingly in agreement on the need to postpone.
Friday's preliminary hearing itself did not achieve what had been intended, though the judge, Märt Toming, found the prosecution's case acceptable as presented.
427 days from now, as ERR puts it, or on March 10 2023, state prosecutor Denis Tšasovskih, and also Paul Keres, counsel for the defendant, former education minister and current Center Party MP Mailis Reps, hope to give their summing up speeches before the Harju County Court judge rules on the case.
Pre-trial proceedings already postponed to late January
Tšasovskih said Friday, the day of the preliminary hearing into the Reps case, that: "Given the workload of the parties and the busy [court] schedule with other proceedings, this can be satisfied."
The preliminary hearing itself has been prolonged – Friday's sitting dealt with formalities – and defense has been granted an extension to January 24 to prepare its defense deposition.
Keres said after Friday's session that: "We are just presenting a slightly less detailed defense now than we would have liked, but if it satisfies the court, we can do so."
A second preliminary hearing will take place almost a week later, on January 31, while the prosecutor's opening remarks will take place on February 7.
Reps charges relate to two main principles
The prosecutor's office charges Mailis Reps under two sections of the Estonian penal code. First, misappropriation by an official, meaning Reps allegedly ordered ministry staff to take care of some of her six children, illegally used the ministry's fuel card for non-ministry business, and organized a birthday using the ministry's money and on the ministry's premises.
Second, Reps is charged with fraud, which in the language of the law means causing damage of property to another party in such a way as to give them a false impression of a situation.
Reps allegedly embezzled funds from the ministry in respect of a coffee machine – in effect she took the machine home from the ministry – and to pay for child travel expenses, including the regular school run – the issue which first came to light in the media following an expose by evening paper Õhtuleht.
Money allegedly used for birthday parties, school run, WRC rally
The former minister also misused funds to pay for a birthday party in an upscale Tallinn restaurant and to pay for accommodation during the inaugural WRC Rally Estonia in 2020, the prosecutor says.
Reps is also subject to a civil action taken out by her former employer, the education ministry, which is being represented by lawyer Marko Kairjak.
Karjak says underlying the ministry's action is to principles, one concerning damage caused to the ministry, and the other the, alleged, unjust enrichment of Reps.
Kairjak noted that whether this be the use of a company car or of staff for her own benefit, taking a coffee machine home, or celebrating a birthday using state funds – if any of these things are proven in court, both the these counts will have been fulfilled.
Karjak added that these damages would not be fully accounted for by the criminal case.
Prosecutor, defense, judge, court's diary dates all clashed
The most significant sums relate mainly to the use of the ministry's people carrier-type vehicle, and its staff, Karjak added, and that in simple terms, had Reps not availed herself of the ministry vehicle for personal use, she would have had to have purchased or leased one herself to carry out the same duties.
Friday's hearing saw a clash of diary dates between prosecutor and defense and also with sessions relating to another high-profile corruption case involving the state-owned Port of Tallinn (Tallinna Sadam) authority, though the latter's hearings are often canceled, Tšasovskih noted.
Additionally, Harju County Court Märt Toming said that his calendar was also fully blocked up with a total of 17 criminal cases, plus a number of civil cases.
Paul Keres' birthday, November 11, and the parties' various vacation dates in the coming year were also taken into account, while a final sitting was ultimately scheduled for March 10 2023, which one of the participants sardonically noted was just under a week after the Riigikogu elections, ERR reports.
This final date is in any case provisional and may be subject to change due to further developments.
Charges refer to general pattern of misuse of funds over many years, rather than specific times
Keres had in principle accepted many of the initial charges, and asked to drop those relating to ministry staff, ERR reports.
Keres and Reps' consistent line is that she would not be pleading guilty to the charges – in effect pleading not guilty.
The ministry staff in question number six, including two drivers, three advisers and the former head of the ministry's Tallinn office - the ministry itself is based in Tartu – while Reps' instructions to them had not prejudiced their employment agreement, ERR reports.
Keres noted that no concrete dates have been given in respect of which instructions were given to which staff members, adding that the charge instead covers periods ranging from months to years, during which time such instructions had allegedly been issued on a regular basis.
Keres noted that some instances, such as state budget-related meetings dragging on until late in the evening, were situations where the use of a ministry vehicle would have been inevitable.
Prosecutor: Case not as complex as some others
Keres noted that the case is so complicated that postponement was inevitable, though Tšasovskih refuted this, saying that the 12 case files and planned 40 witnesses due to be called do not, in comparison with a notorious land swap case, make the hearings complex enough for delay.
Tšasovskih also rejected criticism of the general nature of the charges, in terms of their time-frames and frequency.
He said: "In respect of Supreme Court precedent, crimes can also be identified within the accuracy of a certain period of time, not to the accuracy of one second."
The county court judge agreed with the prosecutor's case as presented and, overruling objections from Keres, filed the civil lawsuit brought by the Ministry of Education and Research, which comes to close to €120,000 (under the criminal case charge sheet, Reps stands charged with misusing €7,500 in ministry funds).
Additional delays in the hearings relate to documentation which Keres said was required but not yet in hand, including the contents of five email inboxes, which, Keres said, is still pending consent from the State Information Agency (RIA) and will hopefully be resolved next Monday.
Reps herself was not present at Friday's hearing.
Reps is by no means the first former government minister ever to face a criminal trial in Estonia and not even the first to face judge Märt Toming.
In 2009, the latter handed down a 266-page decision concerning bribery charges against former minister Villu Reiljan.
Not first time a former minister has been on trial
The long-running, hydra-headed Edgar Savisaar case, while wound up due to the latter's ill health, also involved Reiljan and several other co-defendants. Savisaar is Center Party co-founder and a former prime minister and Tallinn mayor.
News of a secret service investigation into alleged bribery surrounding a central Tallinn real estate project led to the collapse of the Center/EKRE/Isamaa coalition almost a year ago to the day, and the resignation of Jüri Ratas (Center) as prime minister.
Reps is a sitting MP after returning to the Riigikogu following her resignation in November 2020, in the wake of the initial media reports..
Reps' time as education minister spans around seven years, over three terms, the first starting in 2002 and the third ending with the November 2020 resignation.
She is likely to run in the March 2023 general election as a major candidate, which benefits those candidates lower down on an electoral list, due to the nature of Estonia's d'hondt system of proportional representation.
The original AK report (in Estonian) is here.
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Editor: Andrew Whyte