Committee no nearer the truth after discussing presidential office scandal

Riigikogu State Budget Control Select Committee sitting on August 8.
Riigikogu State Budget Control Select Committee sitting on August 8. Source: ERR

Minister of Finance Mart Võrklaev (Reform) and Director of the Office of the President Peep Jahilo still do not see eye-to-eye in terms of whether the president's internal affairs adviser Toomas Sildam tied a funding request to promulgation of laws in conversations with the minister and Secretary General Katrin Saks following a meeting in the Riigikogu. There are no witnesses to the conversations.

The Riigikogu State Budget Control Select Committee convened on Tuesday to discuss the impression of Minister of Finance Mart Võrklaev and the ministry's Secretary General Merike Saks according to which President Alar Karis' internal affairs adviser Toomas Sildam suggested that promulgation of laws could hinge on whether more funds were made available to the presidential office.

Võrklaev said that he met with [Director of the Office of the President] Peep Jahilo in early May and was told that the presidential office had spent more money than planned and asked whether an application could be put in for a top up from the government. Jahilo sent a corresponding email on May 15.

Võrklaev went on to say that he received a call from Toomas Sildam on May 19 and was told that there are a number of bills in the parliament the government is in a rush to get passed, as well as that the presidential office had filed a request for additional funding. Sildam inquired as to how Võrklaev felt about it and how quickly could the matter be resolved.

"I do not recall the exact words used, but that was the nature of our conversation. I told him that once a bill reaches the Riigikogu, it would be more effective to speak with the chief whip /.../ When I hung up, I was left with the question of what had been the point of the call," Võrklaev recalled.

The minister added that he was left feeling uneasy after the phone call.'

On June 9, the finance minister apparently received a call from Secretary General Merike Saks who said that she had had a similar conversation with Sildam.

Võrklaev said that Saks was left with the same impression, which confirmed his suspicions. "I received other signals from Sildam through certain persons in the meantime," Võrklaev added.

The minister said he decided to deny the Office of the President's request for funds in this situation.

"I was greatly bothered by the feeling that if I signed off on the funding, I would be party to a quid pro quo agreement of financing in exchange for the president promulgating the laws. I never wanted to be part of any such deal," Võrklaev said. "I did not want to break the law as that is what I felt I would be doing."

The finance minister said he told Peep Jahilo of the incident during a phone call to notify him that additional funding would not be allocated.

Võrklaev added that Jahilo demonstrated understanding and that he decided to leave the matter at that.

"I gathered it would reach the president and Toomas Sildam, while the internal workings of the Office of the President are none of my business."

Võrklaev did not raise the matter in the government but informed PM Kaja Kallas and described the conversations as disturbing.

Asked why he didn't record the incident in writing if he believed it to be that serious, Võrklaev said he regarded it a moral problem and didn't know whether Sildam was speaking for the entire organization.

Jahilo: Proposals in jest can be interpreted as serious

Peep Jahilo told the parliamentary committee that there were two parallel processes, with the presidential office's request for funds handled by himself and the other matter concerning the promulgation of sensitive bills in proceedings and whether the president would be able to promulgate them before July 1.

"Our people, including Toomas Sildam, were in constant contact with those at the Finance Ministry and the Riigikogu just to be on the same page in terms of the timeline. Because those two processes coincided in time, someone may have gotten the impression they were being tied together as they both led to the Finance Ministry and Kadriorg."

"The processes were independent of one another," Jahilo said.

Some messages that poke fun can come off as serious, which the secretary general admitted in an interview yesterday, suggesting she didn't understand whether the other person was joking, the head of the office added.

Jahilo went on to say that while Toomas Sildam confirmed discussing the presidential office's need for funds, he is not in charge of the office's budget or financial matters as internal affairs adviser. "Toomas admitted that he may have used expressions that left the wrong impression."

He went on to say that there is no situation where decisions of whether to promulgate laws could depend on agreements. "Theoretical possibilities in the conditions of negative developments in someone's head have been mixed up with objective reality here. That is not how it works, such things are impossible," Jahilo suggested.

The director also pointed out that there were no witnesses to any of the conversations in question and the exact phrasing used remains unknown.

Mart Võrklaev did not disclose the names of other people who allegedly communicated Sildam's message to him when prompted to do so by committee chairman Urmas Reinsalu (Isamaa).

Auditor General: Incident clear sign that funding principles need to change

Members of the select committee also heard from Auditor General Janar Holm.

Holm said that because no one else was present for the conversations, he would refrain from adding any more feelings and impressions to the mix. However, he said that the incident once more puts in focus the matter of how constitutional institutions should not depend on the executive branch for their funding. He gave the example of the National Audit Office.

"The National Audit Office is tasked with exercising control over the Ministry of Finance, while the law obligates us to ask the ministry for funding on an annual basis. A situation where the supervisor has to ask the supervised for money every year could be described as a corruptive situation, while it is mandated by law in Estonia," the auditor said.

Holm said that while he has not had any problems with the ministry based on this, the situation is nevertheless peculiar and that there should be a clear dividing line between core functions and funding.

Holm proposed solving the situation by handing decisions pertaining to the funding of constitutional institutions over to the Riigikogu Finance Committee.

The select committee's chairman said that exhaustive answers have not been provided and that he will propose returning to the matter in the future.

"The information here only made the matter less clear. It would be more than inappropriate to draw conclusions in either direction right now," Reinsalu said.


Follow ERR News on Facebook and Twitter and never miss an update!

Editor: Marcus Turovski

Hea lugeja, näeme et kasutate vanemat brauseri versiooni või vähelevinud brauserit.

Parema ja terviklikuma kasutajakogemuse tagamiseks soovitame alla laadida uusim versioon mõnest meie toetatud brauserist: