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MP Tõnis Mölder declared suspect in bribery case

Tõnis Mölder.
Tõnis Mölder. Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

Riigikogu MP Tõnis Mölder has been declared a suspect in soliciting a bribe, the Internal Security Service (ISS), also known as Kapo, says.

The suspicion relates to "protection money," granted by parties to selected, often regional projects as part of the state budget process, and in this case dates back to November 2022.

Mölder, formerly of the Center Party, only joined Isamaa last September, but has announced he will leave the latter party in the wake of the suspicions.

Mölder is also a former environment minister.

State Prosecutor Alan Rüütel notes that the status is of a preliminary suspicion, adding this may change in the course of the forthcoming investigation.

An ISS spokesperson said the organization "has cause to suspect that Riigikogu MP Tõnis Mölder may have solicited a bribe."

"In addition, the suspicion of brokering a bribe for one individual, and accepting a bribe on behalf of another person is being examined," the spokesperson went on.

"These suspicions arose in connection with the work of an MP during the processing of the 2023 State Budget Act. Specifically, in November 2022, a member of the Riigikogu proposed assigning a regional investment to a non-profit organization, i.e., funding support known as 'protection money,'" the spokesperson added.

Mölder was still a Center Party MP in November 2022.

The ISS said that according to the preliminary investigation's version of events, the suspect had brokered an agreement whereby when the protection money support was paid out, a representative of the recipient NGO was to hand over a portion of those funds to the individual suspected of brokering the bribe, who in turn would hand it over to a Riigikogu MP.

The support itself was paid to the NGO, which has not been named, in January this year, the ISS added.

State Prosecutor: Matters of state should always be made with public interest uppermost in mind

Prosecutor Rüütel noted that decisions of state and government must always be based with the public interest in mind and not with, for instance, personal gain as the aim, hence bribery, the giving, brokering and taking of bribes, being a criminal act.

"The evidence collected so far provides basis for a more thorough examination of the suspicion via criminal proceedings in relation to asking for, mediating and permitting bribery to take place," Rüütel went on.

The state prosecutor added that the ISS had conducted a search of the workplace of a Riigikogu MP, after receiving the approval from the chancellor of justice.

The prosecution then requested permission from the first-tier Harju County Court.

A representative of the Riigikogu was present during the ISS search, in order to monitor that solely materials related to the suspicion were examined, the prosecutor added.

The ISS also informed Mölder of the suspicions against him.

Mölder himself announced Friday morning that he had, on the previous morning, ie. Thursday, been declared a suspect in relation to soliciting a bribe during the 2023 state budget allocation of protection money funds to regional investment projects.

Mölder: I do not plead guilty to suspicion

Mölder said that "I do not plead guilty to the suspicion."

Not pleading guilty, in the negative, to suspicions or charges, is standard in Estonia rather than pleading not guilty.

"I will defend my rights. I have always followed applicable procedural norms and laws when working at the Riigikogu and when processing draft bills," Mölder went on.

"I thank Isamaa for its cooperation, but continuing as a party member in this situation would place the party under fire too much," he said.

Mölder added that he had no plans to leave the Riigikogu, or Tallinn City Council, where he also holds a seat, though he had initially said he would not be leaving the party, ie. Isamaa. That had changed later on Friday morning.

Mölder could provide no further comment, noting that sworn attorney Aivar Pilv was acting for him in the course of the suspicions and directed any further questions to him for legal comment.

Meelis Ratassepp, ISS office director, said that anti-corruption activities are one of the most important areas of his authority's work lies in preventing security threats.

"For the constitutional order to function, it is necessary to both prevent and prevent high-level corruption," he said, reiterating that the Riigikogu's decisions must be made in the public interest and not for any private interests under that guise.

'Protection money' practice long been controversial

The practice of issuing "protection money," also known as "roof money" (a literal translation of the Estonian term, katuseraha) has long been controversial in Estonia.

It is seen among other things as a way of greasing the wheels in getting the state budget for the following year passed (by encouraging opposition MPs' votes – protection money is doled out to all represented Riigikogu parties), exacerbated in the run-up to local elections in October every four years, when it has been seen as practically vote buying.

Under the scheme, individual MPs request funding which is allocated to a project of their choice, usually in provincial Estonia. These projects can include sports facilities and even the refurbishment of churches.

At one time, the Reform Party declined to take part in the protection money funding rounds, but has acquiesced in more recent years.

Meelis Ratassepp of the ISS noted that the protection money practice had come with its risks.

He said: "The risks of non-transparency relating to the distribution of roof money have been discussed within society for several years, and in this case our suspicion is that this risk may have materialized.

"Our task now with the criminal proceedings is to amass the necessary evidence in order to ascertain the truth of the matter," he went on.

Isamaa chair: Mölder did not pass his probationary period

Isamaa chair Urmas Reinsalu said that the news about Tõnis Mölder's being declared a suspect as come as as a bad surprise. "I'm disappointed," he said, adding that Mölder had not passed his Isamaa probationary period.

"I met with him after the suspicion was filed and presented my position to him. He has left Isama," Reinsalu added. "That is the end of the matter so far as we are concerned, while the law enforcement agencies will now clarify the matter."

Tõnis Mölder joined Isamaa last September and was part of a wave of high-profile MPs who quit Center in the wake of the election of Tallinn Mayor Mihhail Kõlvart as party leader, in mid-September.

Former Center Riigikogu whip Jaanus Karilaid joined Isamaa at the same time as Mölder, while Center's former leader Jüri Ratas did so late last month.

Several other former Center MPs left to join the Social Democrats, Reform, or to sit as independents.

Mölder was environment minister from January to November 2021, when Center were in office with EKRE and Isamaa. Mölder's resignation at the time was accompanied by news that he had been receiving counselling with regard to gambling.

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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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