Key question in PPA scandal: did state benefit from Heldna rotation?

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: Anna Pavlenko/Raadio 4

Should the recent scandal that has hit high-ranking police officials in Estonia reach court, a likely key dispute will be focused on what the objective was of official Eerik Heldna's most recent professional rotation and, if the intent was purely to qualify for a special pension, whether this compounded otherwise permitted operations into a crime.

Svetlana Meister, head of the personnel accounting and analysis service at the Police and Border Guard Board (PPA), confirmed Wednesday that the law does not prevent the police from hiring an individual working elsewhere in order to then place them back on rotation to their existing job.

State Prosecutor Maria Entsik has said, however, that the hiring of Eerik Heldna, who had been working at the Military Intelligence Center of the Estonian Defense Forces (EDF), by the police was fabricated and designed to allow him to rack up the remaining necessary period of police service to qualify Heldna for a lifetime superannuated pension.

It is precisely intent that could prove the keyword here.

In an interview with ERR, University of Tartu (TÜ) criminology professor Jaan Ginter emphasized that the opportunity to go on rotation was established in the state and society's interests — so that officials would be willing to share their experiences and skills in other institutions and so that they'd return later with new knowledge of their own.

"This purpose is not being fulfilled here," Ginter said. "Eerik Heldna was already in the EDF, and there was absolutely no benefit whatsoever at this time to either the police or the EDF. This was clearly a sham operation."

No one involved has admitted to any guilt. Both PPA ex-director general Elmar Vaher as well as Eerik Heldna, director of the Customs Department of the Estonian Tax and Customs Board (MTA) confirmed that they have done everything correctly and in accordance with the law.

"The dispute will begin in court over whether the intent being just one person earning [the length of service qualifying them for a pension] is sufficient grounds to say that the factors constituting the crime of fraud are present," Ginter noted.

Previous PPA chief: Official may not be only one benefiting

The matter of intent itself could end up the subject of dispute as well.

Daily Postimees asked Vaher outright on Wednesday  why an employment contract was concluded with Heldna on 2019.

Vaher replied that this was too detailed a question, and in answering it he would be revealing details of the investigation.

According to ERR's information, the Estonian Internal Security Service (ISS) and the suspects see the purpose of the contracts concluded involving Heldna differently. While one believes only Heldna benefited from the matter, the others find that the state benefited from it as well.

Raivo Küüt, a current undersecretary at the Ministry of the Interior who preceded Vaher as PPA chief, can't recall a single case where someone joined the police force and immediately placed back elsewhere on rotation.

Nonetheless, he noted that even in a case like this, the official in question may not be the only one to benefit.

"If someone is already working at an institution and suddenly says excuse me, I have to go back to the Police and Border Guard Board to cash in on my social guarantee, the employer may not necessarily be interested in letting that person go," Küüt pointed out.

And so an agreement may be reached that the official will continue working at their old position while at the same time racking up additional service with the police. And this may interest the police as well.

"So that they wouldn't lose these valuable people," Küüt explained. "So that they would still be connected to them and, if possible, contribute back as well."

The former PPA chief added that it's worth bearing officials' motivation in mind as well when discussing how the state benefits.

"People are a major asset for us, and we must value them," he said. "But of course this has to be transparent, comprehensible and clarified."

He stressed that his own knowledge of the entire scandal is limited to what's been covered in the press. He also noted, however, that those who joined the police force in the 1990s are currently starting to reach their 50s.

"And wherever they are working today, they are likewise likely to end up telling these agencies that they are ready to return to the police force in order to receive that 'earned' pension," Küüt said. "That could give rise to such interests."

Former ISS chief: It has to look right too

Isamaa politician Raivo Aeg, former longtime head of both the ISS and the police, confirmed that a valuable specialist is not easily dismissed.

"Nowhere in public service is there really the issue of there being no vacant positions to which to hire someone," Aeg said. "If they are a highly sought after and very good specialist, they will always be hired if they want to join."

He likewise can't think of a single instance of an official being placed on rotation the way Heldna ostensibly was, but nor does he consider it out of the question either that not just the official but also the organization itself benefited from this.

"But I think it really can't be the case that you've been working in the EDF for years and then in order to ensure you continue accruing [service], you can have yourself drafted up as [employed by] the police  and then go right back to the EDF," Aeg acknowledged.

"To be honest this just looks comical," he continued. "Maybe there is no clear violation here following the letter of the law. But this has to not just be right; it has to look right too."

This piece described one possible reason why such a game of contracts may have been conducted with Heldna. The PPA, meanwhile, reputedly has other reasons or justifications, and the involved parties believe that they will manage to defend them in court as well.

Vaher referred in interviews Wednesday to the fact that people have been placed on rotation to another partner organization in a similar fashion.

Once they reach court, these disputes will be complicated ones.

Ginter assumes that the Prosecutor's Office is prepared for as much as well.

"Because conducting a criminal investigation into the director general of the Police and Border Guard Board and bringing a suspicion here is a very serious  situation that demands deliberation," the TÜ professor said. "And I'm not currently seeing any flaws in their reasoning."

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 that same day placed on rotation 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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