Estonian NGO Slava Ukraini's Ukrainian partner company, which is being audited on suspicion of fraud, may have falsified expense statements after the fact, says Slava Ukraini Supervisory Board Chair Kristo Tohver. The first part of the audit on the company is expected to be completed in the coming weeks.
Tohver joined Slava Ukraini at in March this year when the NGO established its own supervisory board.
"I had already become a member of the Slava Ukraini NGO at the beginning of last year, but I was given formal legal obligations after the scandal broke, on March 10," said Tohver.
According to Tohver, he heard the suspicions regarding the NGO's Ukrainian partner organization through Estonian film director and communications expert Ilmar Raag. "After all, Raag also operates in Ukraine. He has sauna projects there (The project "Saunas 4 Ukraine" – ed.), and people communicate with each other," Tohver said.
"So, perhaps the first call came in, around mid-February, to say, 'listen, there might be something going on.' At that point there was nothing concrete. They promised to gather the relevant materials and then, sometime in early March, we sat down for the first time with the supervisory board and looked at the tips as well as the facts that had come to us from Ukraine. We then decided to put the question to the NGO's board about these documents," said Tohver.
"Based on the facts we have today, especially looking at IC Construction's profit and loss statement, which is very difficult to argue with, my assessment is, that this Ukrainian partner has clearly defrauded Lehtme and the NGO Slava Ukraini. (The Ukrainian company) made a completely unjustified profit and so, this situation needs to be resolved," Tohver added.
How these contracts were signed, with whom and for what reason, Tohver said he was unable to answer, because he was not involved with Slava Ukraini in the summer, at the time when they were concluded.
"But, from the media, I understood that the (Ukrainian) partner was not Johanna's own choice, but had instead come about as a result of a series of coincidences. Looking at it from the outside, it seemed logical, that rather than doing things here in Estonia for several times the price, such as rebuilding ambulances, certain activities were transferred to Ukraine because it was cheaper there," said Tohver.
Documents could be doctored
The audit of NGO Slava Ukraini is taking longer than initially hoped. "As for the speed of the audit, of course we hoped for a faster one. On March 10, when we made the matter public, we had hoped [to do it faster]. However, the decision regarding who was going to conduct the audit was a difficult process. First of all, nobody wanted to do it. Second, the dates we received from potential auditors contractors [for completing the work] were in the fall," said Tohver.
The audit is due to be conducted out in two parts. "The first thing is to get clarity regarding what documentation exists in the first place. So yes, it is absolutely possible that some things will turn out to have been changed done afterwards, especially on the Ukrainian side. We must try to verify the facts regarding this," said Tohver.
"However, if this documentation does exist, then the other part of the audit revolves around whether, on the basis of these documents, we can see what has been done. That is the efficiency aspect. So, we have to check the content of whatever documents are produced, or whatever documents actually exist. If something was bought in Ukraine, is it (recorded) at the right price perhaps? That (kind of issue) also makes completing this audit difficult," said Tohver.
"A document audit is expected in the coming weeks and then, depending on the results, the (investigation into the) efficiency side of this can get underway as soon as possible," Tohver added.
As Lehtme is also a member of political party Eesti 200, Party Chair Lauri Hussar has had to comment on the issue. Hussar has said, that before passing further judgement, it is crucial to first wait for the results of the audit. At the same time however, Estonian daily news outlet Eesti Päevaleht has already reported, that every one in every four euros donated by Estonians to Slava Ukraini ended up going to IC Construction.
"We have also asked the board why an agreement like this was signed. This is the most important question at moment, for which we do not currently have a very clear. As far as I understand from Johanna-Maria, this contract was signed because IC Construction was carrying out these projects on the ground," added Tohver.
"The question is, why there sometimes has to be a 'general contractor' who doesn't do these things themselves. Why didn't they do the same thing for All For Victory, as for the charity? As for the one in every four euros that has gone to IC Construction, the question is, how much of that money has actually ended up going to the right cause? I still hope and believe that most of it has," said Tohver.
Tohver: Lehtme has not personally benefited
Lehtme previously defended IC Construction and the NGO All for Victory (Все для Перемоги), which are at the center of the scandal.
"Lehtme's first reaction when this information came out was rather pained. That's understandable if you've been working with people for a year in very difficult situations and you trust them, or at least believe you do. Maybe that's why she reacted that way in the beginning," Tohver said.
According to Tohver, Lehtme is now extremely clear that she has been deceived. "In Lehtme's favor, we have to say, that now our cooperation with her has been absolutely right and proper. We are on the same side of the table, which means that it is also in her interest to find out as best we can and as thoroughly as possible, what actually went wrong.
Whether or not the police are asked to open an investigation is dependent on the results of the audit, including what documents are found, which are genuine and what their content is.
To the best of Tohver's knowledge, Lehtme has not personally benefited from any donations made to support Ukraine.
Tohver does not yet know whether the best course of action will be to take IC Construction to court. "It's very difficult to answer that at the moment. If it is at all possible, then (we) should go ahead. But, again, it ultimately depends on exactly what documents they provide us with," Tohver said.
Tohver conceded that the reputational damage to Slava Ukraini has been huge. "It would have been even worse if it hadn't been dealt with. Perhaps an audit is the only way. It's great that there's so much interest in this, it will certainly clear things up. Now, we are doing everything we can to make sure that every additional cent that leaves Slava Ukraini is used in an optimal, efficient and sensible way," said Tohver.
Editor: Michael Cole