A whistleblower who highlighted the alleged misuse of funds by Estonian NGO Slava Ukraini says that the CEO of the organization, Johanna-Maria Lehtme, was aware of these misappropriations. She also had links to the ultimate owner of IC Construction, the company at the heart of the allegations, the whistleblower, Oleksandr Tšernov, claims.
Speaking to ETV investigative show "Pealtnägija" on Tuesday, Tšernov, currently under house arrest in Ukraine and who has been helping authorities there with its inquiries into the alleged misappropriates, recounted one embezzlement he said involved pre-prepared food packages.
Tšernov said: "I was aware of the sum of money which went on the purchase of these packages and how much money was [actually] spent. I understood how much money was left in the account, most of all since for one thing, it was not purchased at all, it was taken from the warehouse."
"It was canned meat, which was not actually purchased, though a bill was presented for it," Tšernov went on.
Tšernov had informed the Slava Ukraini board about his concerns about the misuse of its funds, amassed from donations from people in Estonia. Last weekend, Tšernov was arrested by regional police in the eastern city of Dnipro, and is currently under house arrest.
Tšernov says he fears for his safety, given what he knows about the alleged misuse of donations, and the fact that the authorities know that he knows.
Tšernov also said that IC Construction, whose real beneficiary is thought to be one Hennadi Vaskiv, earned close to €7,000 in profit from 4,000 food packages, while an even greater disparity can be found between the actual costs of the conversion of vehicles into field ambulances for the front, and the invoices submitted in respect of this.
Vehicles purchased at the start of last autumn were in good condition, he said, but those bought in the month of November, he described as "junk," naming an individual called Maksim as involved in overseeing the procurement and conversion processes.
On researching the value of the latter vehicles, Tšernov said he found that they had been purchased for €1,200 each in Norway, but their price as recorded had been inflated to €7,400, he said.
Tšernov said he informed both Vaskiv and Lehtme personally about both the price and quality of the vehicles.
Many of these were repaired and repainted for free, before being dispatched to the front in Ukraine, he said. While bills in respect of more substantive repairs, bills that Vaskiv said he saw, were well below the €1,000-mark (ranging from 28,000 to 37,000 Ukrainian Hryvni (around €700 to €920), depending on quality), the corresponding invoice presented to Slava Ukraini was around €3,500, Tšernov went on.
Lehtme, elected on March 5 as an Eesti 200 MP on the back of a campaign which expressly referenced her as a helper of Ukraine, says that she was not familiar with IC Construction's actions, nor those of Hennadi Vaskiv.
However, Tšernov refutes this, also.
He said: "She know everything, as she had a good relationship with Hennady; she knew everything, she really did. She knew about those vehicles of 3,500 (euros) in compensation, as in Estonia a conversion like that would costs €6,000 -€6,500, in Ukraine [would cost] €3,500, but in actuality [it cost] €1,000. [Lehtme was aware] that vehicles purchased were poor; she knew this because I told her, and she knew about the food packages."
ETV news show "Aktuaalne kaamera" attempted to get hold of Johanna-Maria Lehtme on Tuesday, via email, text message and via an intermediary, but was unable to reach her.
Eesti 200's Riigikogu chief whip, Marek Reinaas, told AK that: "As party whip, I am aware that she is absent today and perhaps for the next few days, due to health reasons. So far as I am aware, she is undergoing tests."
Lehtme was suspended from the Slava Ukraini board last week, for the duration of criminal investigations taking place in both Ukraine and Estonia in respect of the allegations. Lehtme then issued a formal statement in which she said the allegations had come as an "extremely unpleasant surprise" to her, and adding that she would be fully cooperating with the investigations.
Hennadi Vaskiv is a former deputy mayor of Lviv, in western Ukraine, and was at one time Tšernov's boss there; Vaskiv later set up IC Construction, once again hiring Tšernov to work for him.
A search of Tšernov's vehicle by local officials in Ukraine last Friday reportedly led to the discovery of a grenade launcher, which Tšernov says is not his, and would have been planted there.
Tšernov: Last Slava Ukraini delivery arrive in March
The last delivery from Slava Ukraini to Ukraine took place back in March, Tšernov said – a large one, consisting of one vehicle and a supply of drones, totaling around €195,000 in value, he added.
As for his connection to Lehtme, Tšernov said that he was aware of her existence as a volunteer working in humanitarian aid from last spring, while from late May to early June 2022 they were both on the same trip, ferrying a dozen or so vehicles to Dnipro, Kharkiv and Mykolaiv, and staying in the same hotels.
Lehtme would also have been aware that Hennadi Vaskiv was the real owner of IC Construction, Tšernov said, noting that on a desk in an office used by Vaskiv's wife were displayed three logos: Slava Ukraini's, IC Construction's and that of the partner charity in Ukraine, "All for victory."
It was simply impossible for [Lehtme] not to be aware," of the link, Tšernov added.
As to an explanation as to why she did not flag this, as questioned by "Pealtnägija" interviewer Mihkel Kärmas, Tšernov said that: "When big money is at stake, you often don't want to talk. If she understood that questions might arise, then there is no reason to talk – if you appear happy with everything, then all will be well. Why do anything differently when it is clear you are saying what is required, which is what she did."
Tšernov also claimed that Vaskiv himself would have provided PR guidance.
"I'm sure Hennadi gave her advice on how to respond. I think that was the case;" he went on.
Lehtme rejects Tšernov claims as 'baseless'
In addition to her statement made last week, Lehtme has also rejected the claims made by Tšernov as they appeared in Tuesday's edition of "Pealtnägija", saying: "In response to the baseless claims made by Oleksandr Tšernov on May 16, 2023, stating that I was aware of the alleged fraud and participated in the misuse of donor funds; this is completely false. I am glad that an investigation has been launched which will help to establish the truth."
Editor's note: This article was updated to include claims made by Tšernov in relation to Lehtme's links to Vaskiv, and Lehtme's refutation of the claims made by Tšernov. The article uses the Estonian spelling convention of Tšernov's name.
Editor: Andrew Whyte, Marko Tooming