Customs chief's contract with PPA may have been legal

Eerik Heldna, director of the Customs Department at the Estonian Tax and Customs Board (MTA).
Eerik Heldna, director of the Customs Department at the Estonian Tax and Customs Board (MTA). Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

The type of contract in connection with which suspicions were brought against Police and Border Guard Board (PPA) Director General Elmar Vaher and Eerik Heldna, director of the Customs Department at the Estonian Tax and Customs Board (MTA) Tuesday are essentially permitted by law, the PPA said Wednesday. What may prove fateful for the ex-officials, however, is the motive behind the contract.

Police officials can be assigned to either another government agency or an international organization. This requires the consent of both institutions as well as the official and is handled without much bureaucracy.

"The purpose of a fixed-period transfer is to motivate officials, to build their competencies, to gain experience, in addition to promoting cross-institutional cooperation," said Svetlana Meister, head of the PPA's personnel accounting and analysis service, adding that both the institution and officials benefit from it.

Rotations like this are typical in other institutions as well. A total of 43 people from the PPA are currently on rotation elsewhere, 15 of which are working at the Ministry of the Interior and seven at the European Border and Coast Guard Agency (Frontex). Estonian police officials are likewise working at the European Union Agency for Law Enforcement Cooperation (Europol), the Estonian Academy of Security Sciences as well as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

"Specialists, experts and leaders all go on rotation," Meister added.

Heldna was dispatched from the PPA to the Estonian Defense Forces' (EDF) Military Intelligence Center; the Prosecutor's Office isn't reproaching anyone for this. State Prosecutor Maria Entsik explained Tuesday that Heldna had worked in the EDF for a year already before contacting police chief Elmar Vaher with the request to be registered as employed with the PPA.

So it was done on Vaher's orders. And then he was transferred back to his existing job, i.e. the Military Intelligence Center, on rotation. Thus Heldna began a period of police service that ultimately enabled him to apply for a lifetime superannuated pension from the Social Insurance Board (SKA) in spring 2022. The prosecution believes this entire scheme was conjured in the name of this €400 a month.

Law doesn't prohibit rotation back to existing job

The PPA declined to comment to ERR on either the case involving Heldna and Vaher or their motives. Meister did, however, describe the types of contracts the law permits to be concluded.

"The law does not specify how long an individual should serve in the police or in any other institution before they go on rotation," she explained. Not a single word about this is mentioned in the explanatory memos of any of the relevant bills.

The law doesn't limit the length of a rotation either, for example.

"Someone can go on rotation for ten years or for three years," the PPA official continued. The law likewise doesn't mention anything about where one may work prior to joining an institution and going on rotation.

Meaning that, essentially, the PPA could hire a Ministry of the Interior employee and then immediately transfer them right back to the interior ministry for a fixed period.

"It's typically the case that people serve for a bit longer," Meister responded when asked whether the previously described operation is typical in the police. "But we don't have any statistics on this."

PPA unaware of possible fictitious contracts

The state prosecutor likewise explained Tuesday afternoon that Heldna's hiring and transfer alone did not yet constitute a criminal offense, and that the Prosecutor's Office regarded this as a preparatory phase for fraud.

"But fraud only becomes punishable from the moment an individual has committed attempted fraud, i.e. filed an application with the SKA stating they want to receive a pension based on these documents," Entksik said.

She also added that according to the information of the Prosecutor's Office, more contracts such as that concluded with Heldna may exist. As already noted, more than 40 people are currently on rotation elsewhere from the PPA. According to Entsik, fewer than ten contracts have been deemed dubious.

Meister, meanwhile, was unable to guess what the Prosecutor's Office meant by that.

"We're following entirely similar principles with all rotations," the PPA official said. "We draw them up similarly, and those deciding principles are similar as well. We don't treat certain rotations differently."

She expressed hope that the audit initiated by the Ministry of the Interior Tuesday will provide more clarity on the matter.

Suspected of fraud

Eerik Heldna, director of the Customs Department of the Estonian Tax and Customs Board (MTA), and Police and Border Guard Board (PPA) Director General Elmar Vaher were detained Tuesday morning on suspicions of fraud and aiding fraud, respectively, brought by the Estonian Internal Security Service (ISS).

According to the suspicion, Eerik Heldna was, at his own request and with the involvement of Elmar Vaher, registered as ostensibly employed in the Police and Border Guard Board (PPA) in April 2019 and transferred that same day for a fixed period of time to a structural unit of the Estonian Defense Forces (EDF) where he had in fact been working for a year already.

In May 2022, Heldna filed a pension application with the Social Insurance Board (SKA) seeking a lifetime superannuated pension, the suspicion noted. SKA approved his application. The pension application was based on documents which, among other things, reflected Heldna's ostensibly generated period of police service spanning nearly two years. Without this period, Heldna would not have met the requirement of 25 years of police service and would not have had the right to a lifetime superannuated pension.

This is an initial suspicion and is subject to change in the course of proceedings, which are being conducted by ISS officials under the direction of the Office of the Prosecutor General.


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Editor: Aili Vahtla

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