Margus Kurm, defender of former PPA executives Elmar Vaher and Eerik Heldna, maintains that his clients have done nothing wrong and blames the mess on Estonia's handling of the special pensions system. He believes criminal proceedings were motivated by a conflict between Heldna and the ISS.
The Estonian Internal Security Service (ISS) on March 21 brought suspicions of fraud against Tax and Customs Board customs chief Eerik Heldna and of facilitating fraud against head of the Police and Border Guard Board (PPA) Elmar Vaher. According to the suspicions, Heldna was seemingly registered as an employee of the PPA in April 2019 only to be rotated to the Estonian Defense Forces (EDF) Intelligence Center, where he had de facto been working for a year, on the very day, this with Vaher's participation. Both Vaher and Heldna have denied wrongdoing.
"The appointment and rotation were legal because no rules were broken in how these decisions were made. The Police and Border Guard Act has ten sections on rotating officials. General rotation norms are provided in the Public Service Act. None of these legal norms have been violated," said Margus Kurm, Heldna and Vaher's defender.
"The public prosecutor is simply claiming that the PPA did not benefit from hiring Heldna. The prosecutor has not said why they think they are better positioned to gauge the needs of the PPA than the organization's director," Kurm remarked.
"The tragedy of this case is that it looks odd at first glance. How can someone be rotated on the day they are hired? But once we delve deeper, we see that the law provides the opportunity. If the head of the agency in charge finds, after weighing all the circumstances, that such a decision would serve the agency's interests, then everything is above board," the legal expert said.
Kurm harked back to the time when the special pensions system (Heldna's appointment at the PPA was allegedly meant to allow him to keep his PPA special pension– ed.) was first introduced and when the salaries of police officers were very low.
He said that while he got paid 15,000 kroons as a senior prosecutor in 1999, Vaher and Heldna, who both worked for the criminal police at the time, must have gotten paid around 5,000 kroons. "At the same time, defense attorneys charged 1,500 kroons an hour," Kurm recalled.
"It is painful in this light to hear former lawyers talk about Soviet mentality and stealing from the government using the example of Heldna's case. The second and third pension pillars of police officers and EDF members are a lot smaller than those of lawyers. The system of special pensions was created to compensate low salaries. Many have forgotten that by now, just how they've forgotten about the criminal situation back then. We didn't have cyber criminals then, we had knives and guns on the streets. These young men were risking their lives every day." he said.
The defender also said that Heldna has worked for the Estonian state for 26 years and should therefore be eligible for a special pension even if he has had different employers, adding that, if anything, the fault is with the state for failing to harmonize special pensions.
"If the prosecutor treats pension payments as damage to the state, it is basically suggesting that people eligible for special pension have been a poor choice on the government's part. That agencies should have preferred candidates with no special pension rights. But why stop there? It is also expensive to hire young women as they might soon go on maternal leave. In summary, suggesting that the director should consider who to hire in terms of future expenses is, shall we say, brutal."
"Secondly, if the ISS thought that a crime was being planned (asking the Social Insurance Board for a pension reflecting Heldna's seniority at the PPA, while not de facto working there – ed.) it should have prevented this. The ISS could have notified the Social Insurance Board and proposed withholding Heldna's pension. This would have allowed Heldna to turn to administrative court and demand the decision's reversal. The dispute could have been given a solution befitting a state based on the rule of law this way," Kurm said.
The defender also pointed to other cases of rotation of officials between state agencies, including in the ISS itself, with only slight differences from Heldna's case.
Daily Õhtuleht reported in mid-May that the ISS used a similar scheme where a person worked for the agency in 10 percent capacity, while working for the Estonian Foreign Intelligence Service (EFIS) in 90 percent capacity.
"People need to be treated equally. Saying that Heldna and Vaher are criminals, while everyone else is clean is incomprehensible. It is wrong and a blatant injustice," Kurm said.
The defender added that he has heard rumors of a conflict between Heldna and the ISS, which is why he does not consider the latter to be unbiased in this case.
"I believe they are true. I have met with a lot of people working in the security and justice domains when doing research for the Heldna and Vaher case. They all know that certain top people at ISS have it out for Heldna. That this is more than a quiet grudge and there have been attempts to obstruct Heldna's career is also revealed in this particular saga. The ISS has tried to use the fact of his rotation to oust Heldna from the PPA and the Tax and Customs Board. I do not know the reason behind this feud."
He added that he has met with case prosecutor Maria Entsik and Prosecutor General Andres Parmas to ask them to alter the investigative jurisdiction and have the Office of the Prosecutor General take care of the matter in-house.
"However, these requests have not been heeded so far."
Editor: Marcus Turovski