The Internal Security Service (ISS) suspects Tartu Deputy Mayor Priit Humal of violating procedural restrictions on a grand scale and businessman Parvel Pruunsild of aiding and abetting. Both are members of the Isamaa party.
Parvel Pruunsild told members of the press on Wednesday morning that ISS agents searched his home on Tuesday and that official suspicions of a crime have been brought against him.
Criminal proceedings are tied to the sale of a former exhibitions hall of the Estonian National Museum to the Sakala fraternity of which Pruunsild is a member. Sakala recently acquired the building at Kuperjanovi 9 from Riigi Kinnisvara AS (RKAS) for €1.2 million.
RKAS put the former ERM exhibitions hall up for public auction in 2017, but because the property also interested the City of Tartu, the public administration minister at the time voided the auction and gave the city the preferential right to purchase. RKAS presented the city with a draft contract for the purchase in 2022.
Information from the Office of the Prosecutor General suggests Pruunsild was also interested in the property and wanted it to go to the Sakala fraternity (NGO Korp! Sakala) the bid of which came out on top in the 2017 auction.
"According to suspicions, Pruunsild started pressuring the deputy mayor into Tartu pulling out of the deal for RKAS to hold a new public auction, starting in August of 2022, or after RKAS had presented the city with the draft contract. Humal, while aware of Pruunsild's interests, allegedly did everything in his power to make sure the city abandoned its plan of buying the property despite recent plans to do so," the prosecution's press release reads.
Gerd Raudsepp, prosecutor at the South District Prosecutor's Office, said that even though Tartu made plans to use the property, Humal, as deputy mayor in charge of city assets and financing, started suggesting at various meetings that the city should relinquish its right of pre-emption.
"Based on evidence collected, we suspect that the businessman, who maintains financial ties to the deputy mayor, repeatedly expressed his intertest in the property and put pressure on the deputy mayor to influence the process. Therefore, the deputy mayor knew that a businessman with economic ties to his person is interested in the city deciding against the building's acquisition and should have removed himself from the decision-making process. Suspicions suggest he didn't," Raudsepp said, adding that these preliminary suspicions will be verified during further proceedings.
The RKAS auction this spring that followed Tartu's decision not to purchase the property favored the fraternity.
Parvel Pruunsild said in his statement that his information suggest the City of Tartu decided not to use its pre-emptive purchase right because it lacked the necessary funds to buy and develop the property.
The businessman also points to ISS claims according to which Humal and members of his family have loans from Bigbank 50 percent of which is owned by Pruunsild.
"I do not know the details of that particular loan, but I am sure Priit Humal secured it on market conditions and is paying interest," Pruunsild remarked.
"From this, the ISS draws the completely arbitrary conclusion that I am someone 'whose position or activities directly affect an official outside of their official position' (friend or acquaintance – ed.) and that Priit Humal, affected by these ties, influenced processes at the Tartu City Government in a corrupt manner and 'on a large scale.'"
The investigation is being handled by the ISS on behalf of the South District Prosecutor's Office.
Jaanus Kann, head of the ISS in Southern Estonia, said that procedural restrictions are aimed at making sure officials make decisions honestly and in an unbiased manner.
"The aim of procedural restrictions is to protect the transparency and credibility of decisions. Whereas whether the official or agency benefits is not necessarily consequential," Kann explained.
Parvel Pruunsild has been a member of Isamaa since 1999. He has been one of the conservative party's biggest financial backers. Based on data from the Political Parties Financing Surveillance Committee (ERJK) going back seven years, Pruunsild has donated €1.078 million to Isamaa in that time. It has been suggested in the press that Pruunsild has had major influence on Isamaa politics, concerning such initiatives as the pension reform and large family benefits.
Priit Humal has been an Isamaa member since 2002 and is best known as a fierce critic of the Rail Baltic route.
Mayor: Difficult for Humal to continue in city government
Tartu Mayor Urmas Klaas (Reform) said that he has not had the chance to meet with Priit Humal or discuss the procedural restrictions violation. "But I'm sure Humal will find it difficult to continue as deputy mayor," Klaas said.
"The main thing for me is making sure the city government can continue its work without disturbances," the mayor remarked.
He said that Humal should have recused himself if a businessmen whose interest in a particular piece of real estate was known backed his elections campaign.
"If there was such a conflict of interest, the possibility of which has been suggested in the media, he should have recused himself from these discussions and decisions, even though the city government's decisions are collegial," Klaas said.
Humal denies Pruunsild's involvement
Priit Humal told ERR in an interview that the city cannot afford the property at Kuperjanovi 9 and that while he and Parvel Pruunsild, who did help fund Humal's 2022 local elections campaign with €3,000, have discussed it, the businessman's involvement with the Sakala fraternity in no way influenced Tartu's decision.
Humal said that while he has not borrowed from Bigbank, his wife does have a loan from the bank. He added that he is not aware of any special conditions having been applied.
The deputy mayor said he has not found time to talk to colleagues or decide about his position at the city government.
Isamaa chair: Suspicions against Pruunsild and Humal have nothing to do with the party
Isamaa leader Helir-Valdor Seeder said that he only knows what he has read in the papers about suspicions involving Pruunsild and Humal.
"Both Parvel Pruunsild and Priit Humal called me yesterday evening to tell me that they have been apprehended by the ISS, their phones and computers confiscated, and that they have been slapped with confusing suspicions they feel innocent of."
Seeder said the case has no ties to Isamaa and no bearing on its looming in-house elections.
"The party is not involved in clearing this matter as it lacks the necessary capacity and information. The investigative organs have not involved Isamaa in proceedings, and from what I can understand, there is no reason to," the Isamaa chairman said.
The article was updated to add comments from Priit Humal and Helir-Valdor Seeder.
Editor: Marcus Turovski