Liina Kersna (Reform) has told ERR that she has resigned as education minister, keeping a pledge that she would do so should criminal proceedings be opened up against her in respect of procurement deals for rapid coronavirus tests for schools conducted last fall.
Of the investigations into three separate procurements or amendments to procurements, the prosecutor's office has opened up criminal proceedings on one, from last October.
The procurement took place at a time of soaring Covid rates, while Kersna and the ministry desired to avoid wholesale closure of schools and a return to remote learning as had happened earlier in the pandemic.
Isamaa chair Heli-Valdor Seeder, whose party has seemingly reached a deadlock in coalition negotiations with Reform and the Social Democrats, had previously told ERR that Kersna should not continue as minister in any new line-up, after the finance ministry initiated misdemeanor proceedings against Kersna in May.
A guilty conviction could result in up to five years' jail time, but public prosecutor Aiaots stressed to ERR that while the prosecutor's office has started criminal proceedings in a specific episode, there are currently no suspects declared.
Kersna told ERR Thursday that she was: "Very sad and disappointed. But as I promised, after Prime Minister Kaja Kallas has arrived home from the [Madrid] NATO summit tomorrow, I will submit my resignation request."
"I think that any minister who has had criminal proceeding initiated against them should not continue in office, while as the Minister of Education and Science, my heart is content, since children were able to go to school, which was certainly my goal as well as that of the ministry," she went on.
Public prosecutor Aiaots said: "Criminal proceedings were initiated on the basis of those sections of the Penal Code … which concern violations of public procurement requirements and abuse of trust."
"This is a decision made on the basis of preliminary information, which may change during the course of the proceedings. No one has been charged as as suspect today, and whether, and for whom, there may be a basis for suspicion will be determined during the proceedings," Aiaots added.
Aiaots said that criminal proceedings were the only way to establish whether or not all requirements for transparency and honesty pertaining to public sector decisions and processes had been complied with is via criminal proceedings.
There may also be elements of a crime relating to the case, something which, again, the criminal case would aim to get to the bottom of.
The criminal complaint submitted to the prosecutor's office raised suspicions of possible criminal activity pertaining to three episodes – the conclusion of two contracts, and the modification to one procurement contract.
Of these, criminal proceedings were initiated in the case of one rapid testing procurement contract, which had been concluded in October last year.
At this stage it is hard to say more than that, Aiaots went on.
Kersna maintains that she had acted at the time in the belief that she was doing so in accordance with the law, but would be cooperating fully with the prosecutor's office, as well as the finance ministry, in the hopes that this brought clarity and a resolution.
Kersna adds that she would continue as an MP as per her mandate.
The proceedings were formally initiated on Thursday and are being conducted by the Internal Security Service (ISS), under the direction of the prosecutor's office.
Kersna, who became education minister in the-then Reform/Center coalition in January 2021 and continued as minister after the dismissal of the seven Center members early on this month – when she also took on the role of caretaker culture minister – said during a vote of no-confidence against her on June 16 that she would resign as minister should the prosecutor's office start an investigating, and on the same day.
The development means there are currently only six active government ministers, in addition to prime minister Kaja Kallas, all of them from the Reform Party. While Reform's ministers had already doubled up as caretakers of the portfolios vacated by the dismissed Center ministers on June 3, Kersna's education portfolio, as well as the culture ministry portfolio, are vacant at the time of writing.
Editor: Andrew Whyte