Auditor general: I would have spoken up if ECA nominee was unsuitable

Participants on Tuesday's edition of the 'UV Faktor', from left, Auditor General Janar Holm, journalist Vilja Kiisler, host Urmas Vaino, State Secretary Taimar Peterkop and former minister Rein Lang.
Participants on Tuesday's edition of the 'UV Faktor', from left, Auditor General Janar Holm, journalist Vilja Kiisler, host Urmas Vaino, State Secretary Taimar Peterkop and former minister Rein Lang. Source: ERR

Guests on ETV panel show "UV faktor" went head-to-head Tuesday evening over the nomination of Finance Minister Keit Pentus-Rosimannus (Reform) to the European Court of Auditors, as Estonia's representative, addressing the issue, if not referring to it in such terms, of remaining within the letter of the law even as attention to the spirit of the law may not be as rigorous.

Eesti Päevaleht (EPL) journalist Vilja Kiisler said the appointment was not a good look, while both Auditor General Janar Holm and State Secretary Taimar Peterkop said that the procedure had been handled correctly so far as the rules go.

Kiisler noted that both men had given their assessment that the nomination of Pentus-Rosimannus, who as finance minister could not nominate herself to the post but whose appointment was filed by Rural Affairs Minister Urmas Kruuse (Reform), deputizing for Pentus-Rosimannus while she was away at an EU finance ministers' meeting, had been conducted correctly.

"This is primarily a political decision, and perhaps a overstepping of some best practices, politically speaking, by the Reform Party, yet you both have your own roles to play. How could you possibly keep a straight face in saying that this has been handled correctly?" Kiisler asked.

Janar Holm replied that his task was to give an opinion on the suitability of the candidate and no more.

"I have not said anything about this process anywhere, either with a straight or a crooked face. The role of the National Audit Office and the Auditor General has been over the years one of the auditor giving an opinion on the skills and suitability of the candidate, not on the process of their nomination. We have this also in writing /... / we have presented our position that Keit Pentus-Rosimannus has the appropriate skills and necessary experience," Holm said.

Meanwhile Taimar Peterkop said that his role as state secretary is to help both government and the prime minister run the country.

"If the State Secretary were to say something about a process to members of the government or to the prime minister, they certainly would not do so publicly. Plus, my job is to ensure that the political will gets implemented. What the prime minister has and what the government has [as its political will]. That's my job," Peterkop said.

"The politicians run the country, the officials serve the politicians," he added.

Vilja Kiisler said while she agreed that politicians are behind the nomination of Pentus-Rosimannus, in her view, Peterkop could have at least said within that circle that the situation does not look good.

Holm added to Kiisler that if Pentus-Rosimannus were not a suitable candidate in his opinion, he would have said so too.

Holm said: "I am a representative of a constitutional independent institution and I am not afraid to say anything.

"I am not afraid to state anything, while many ministers frown after we make our public statements or audits. The question now is this: Is this a decision-making process where the Auditor General has a say in whether the training and qualifications of the given person are suitable."

"Yes, [Pentus-Rosimannus] is suitable. I think that [current incumbent] Juhan Parts would also be a suitable candidate, and this position has also been given before. I cannot choose who is presented to me for my opinion. I expressed my opinion exactly in this form as the law requires. The law asks me to make my opinion known to the government, and I did so. If I had had any indication that here was an unsuitable candidate, I assure you, I would have said so," Holm went on.

The question of what, if anything, needs to be altered to make the competitive process for the selection of officials more transparent was also addressed, and Tuesday's edition of the "UV Faktor" also discussed the transparency of state administration and the criticism heard in the press recently to the effect that some top officials can be appointed to new positions without any competitive process.

Also appearing on the show, former minister Rein Lang said that during his tenure in government, the Ministry of Justice prepared and brought to parliament the currently in-force Civil Service Act.

Lang said. "The law was under preparation for four years. In fact, the choice was between whether Estonia adopts a public service based on a position system, where people move between the private sector and the public sector, and all vacant jobs are put up for competitive processes, where people from the private sector can also come and work for the state for a while, or , alternatively, do we have such a closed model whereby if you work well, you get promoted. And the first of these, the position system was chosen. /.../ There is nothing much wrong with the law, but there are grounds for situations when you can skip a competitive hiring process."

Lang added that legislation can always be amended if needed, to increase transparency in the selection of top officials.

"In my opinion, the Estonian public service system today is one of the most progressive and well thought out in the EU," he added.

This did not mean it was without its faults, however, Lang went on. "There are many practical problems where it is still the case that if you are looking for some corporate opportunity to screw something up there, someone has to make sure that that does not happen, so  it seems that monitoring it is a bit bad at the moment."

Under current law, the Ministry of Finance must constantly analyze the state of public sector services.

"This is the task of the Ministry of Finance; the law says so. [However], it has not been heard that they seriously carry this out every day," Lang went on.

If any institution wishes to not hold a competitive process for the election of an official, this must be justified, he said.

Peterkop noted that since the state is fairly thinly spread out in terms of resources, the Ministry of Finance may not be able to constantly monitor the situation as Lang called for.

This means the media has an important role in highlighting the areas of concern, Peterkop went on.

He said: "Laws and governance culture go hand-in-hand, and in order for the governance culture to remain at the same level, it is necessary to discuss this way from time to time, and this also forces this culture to pay more attention to be more transparent," he said.

According to Kiisler, amendments to the law would not resolve the situation regarding the appointment of officials, however.

She said: "It seems that the main development that could bring change would be the understanding of the individuals themselves, as to what is suitable and  appropriate and what is not, and what the consequences of any step in society are," he said.

Holm said he agreed on this at least.

Holm said: "The law does not preclude reasonable behavior at the moment. It is possible to behave legally, but it is a question of the internal moral compass as to how competitions are organized, how open one is, but I think that everything can be done within the requirements of the law."

The transparency of competitive hiring processes in Estonia has constantly been improving, Holm added. "There has been progress. It is important that we do not fall back."

Keit Pentus-Rosimannus' nomination to the ECA was made public last week. Juhan Parts' term ends on December 31 this year.


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Editor: Andrew Whyte, Merili Nael

Source: 'UV Faktor'

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