A senior ministerial official has denied charges of a conflict of interest over her ownership of stock options with Estonian mobility solutions app company Bolt, adding that she did not take a job at the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Communications either to aid Bolt in its lobbying and influence over regulation, or as a scheme to inflate the potential value of those stock options, should Bolt float on the stock market.
Sandra Särav, deputy secretary general at the Ministry of Economic Affairs since last July, denies that Bolt, one of Estonia's unicorn firms, had effectively dispatched her to the ministry so as to be "their" woman there, even as her post involves regular communication with the company, and many other firms.
Särav told ERR's radio news Wednesday that: "I was at [PR firm] Meta in the meantime, but actually, even when I had only been at Bolt for a couple of weeks, I realized that I liked the public sector more, since if you work for a restricted company, you're mainly protecting the interests of that company."
Särav also conceded that Bolt co-founder Martin Villig was a friend.
"Martin Villig is a very nice person and a super CEO, but I still want to defend my own interests, and I will do well when the Estonian state is doing well," adding that while she had not met with any representatives from Bolt in the nine months she has been at the ministry, "I' have been to lunch with Martin Villig, since he was my direct boss at Bolt, but he's also a friend; however, we don't talk about work matters."
Särav worked as Bolt's chief of government relations 2019-2021, describing the role as: "Colloquially, a lobbyist."
"It involves ensuring that the regulation regarding the company is reasonable and, on the other hand, that relations are good with local government and the state. To use the example of e-scooters here, Bolt has always had good communications with the [Tallinn] city government, and before the start of each new season, we have agreed on those conditions."
As to the share options she owned and which were the main focus of media attentoin, Särav said that she acquired these in the two years she was there, taking 50 percent of the total which would have been possible had she been at Bolt for four years.
"Options are included in a company's motivation package in order to encourage an employee to take the company's interests more seriously," she added.
At the same time, Särav added, since these were just options they were by their nature notional, or, in the words of an unnamed colleague at the ministry, "air".
"But now a change in the law says we have to declare options as well," she added.
Särav said she has a total of 360 Bolt stock options which, when she started there in 2019, were valued at a couple of thousand euros.
As for the move away from the private sector to the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Communications, Särav said she applied for the deputy secretary-general post "out of a very strong sense of mission," adding that she wanted to help Estonian companies, particularly with regard to the regulatory environment in Estonia.
"Having worked for two large companies myself, I have seen how regulations affect a company's performance," she went on.
On the charge of a conflict of interest, Särav said that she understood why it would be viewed in that way, but added the package was so modest that the sums would equate to perhaps one foreign trip.
In any event, their value would become clear at such a time as Bolt floated on the stock exchange, if that ever happened.
Nonetheless, ERR's radio news reported, Bolt's performance and therefore the price of its potential stock hinges on how well it is able to establish itself in different markets – which in turn depends on the formulation of regulations, which Särav in her current position has influence in.
Särav added that in pre-Bolt days (the company was originally called Taxify-ed.) or at least before it was the size it is now, the Public Transport Act had been "exemplary" in regulating taxis in Estonia, and had been developed in conjunction with ride-hailing firm Uber.
This on its own led to charges of unscrupulousness, ie. that Uber, had influenced the legislation to its own potential gain, though Särav said that at that time she was neither at Bolt or at the ministry.
"However, I've read this law and there are only a couple of paragraphs that related to ride-sharing services. I think it's going to far to say this bill was written at Uber's headquarters," she added.
Bolt is but one of a hundred thousand companies in Estonia, she added, while regulation at EU level, in particular in relation to the VAT package, is disproportionate, she said – adding that advisers, who came up with views expressed in a recent piece which appeared on ERR's Estonian-language page thought the same.
"Currently, a VAT payer in Estonia is one who earns more than €40,000 a year, and essentially with this VAT package in the digital age, if you are a platform service provider, you have to add VAT to your service, although you should not need to under domestic Estonian law," Särav said .
She also described her time at Meta as "very boring for an Estonian who is enthusiastic and impatient; the processes were very languorous there."
She did have praise for her successor as Bolt's head of government relations, saying they were "a very smart person, who knows they can use other means [to lobby]."
This meant in any case the company is "in constant communication with my advisers," about domestic or EU legislation and initiatives.
"Bolt, like any other company, can provide its input," she went on, adding that involving companies in drafting laws was key to reducing over-regulated.
"Sometimes companies can be regulated by one single. strong piece of legislation," she added.
Särav, deputy secretary general for business and consumer environment at the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Communications, reportedly failed to list Bolt stock options she owns on a declaration of financial interests, adding that she was unaware that this was mandatory and that she would report them as soon as possible.
In Estonia, Bolt provides taxi-hailing, food courier and short-term car rental services, all app-based. Worldwide, the company is active in around 500 cities in over 40 countries.
Editor: Andrew Whyte, Mari Peegel
Source: ERR Radio News, interviewer: Madis Hindre