According to the information of daily Postimees, researchers at the Ragnar Nurkse Department of Innovation and Governance at Tallinn University of Technology (Taltech) submitted false information to the European Commission, artificially inflating Taltech's working hours, and money was paid as wages to individuals who did not participate in the project.
The paper wrote (link in Estonian) that in 2016, the European Commission allocated €267,500 from the Horizon 2020 program to the Ragnar Nurkse Department as Estonians had implemented their part of the international OpenGovIntelligence (OGI) project.
Detailed OGI reports at Postimees' disposal reveal that while all of the research done within the framework of the OGI project was done by just four researchers earning lower hourly pay, the workload was artificially inflated before the European Commission, and money was also paid to people who did not participate in the project.
The paper cited that €31,904 was paid to institute researcher David Duenas Cid, whose connection with OGI could not be traced in any research information systems. Another more than €22,120 was paid to professor Wolfgang Drechsler, although he spent three months traveling around the world while, according to timesheets, he was working on the OGI project.
At Postimees' disposal is a recording in which institute director Erkki Karro admits that the idea behind the scheme was to maximize the institute's income, as the university's own basic funding would only be sufficient to pay the wages of four professors, but the institute has seven or eight on its payroll.
According to the paper's information, the whistleblower had informed Taltech rector Jaak Aaviksoo of the situation in a private, one-on-one conversation this spring, but this revelation did not lead anywhere.
Rector: Committee with find out truth
Commenting on the allegations on Thursday, Taltech Rector Jaak Aaviksoo said that a special committee convened for the occasion will determine the truth in the funding issue.
According to Aaviksoo, the committee will have to determine whether this was indeed systematic fraud, and if it was, why the European Commission and the university's own control mechanisms didn't work. Likewise whether this constituted a crime.
Taltech Vice-Rector for Research Renno Veinthal said that a recently conducted broader internal audit on the utilization of funding by research projects did not identify any shortcomings. He stressed that projects whose volumes exceed €325,000 are regularly monitored by the European Commission as well.
Aaviksoo was told about this by a whistleblower who wished to remain anonymous. Asked why the internal audit didn't investigate the OGI project, Aaviksoo replied that it had just undergone monitoring by the European Commission, and that investigating it would have exposed the whistleblower.
"This person came and requested confidentiality and anonymity," the rector said. "This explains why we didn't start investigating this project separately. To this day, I cannot confirm for sure who the young man was who requested an audience with me and called from a phone number registered to the U.S. We got together; we talked. He indicated that this information submitted by the Nurkse Department was either embellished or falsified. These were very serious allegations. This information has not reached me. If there had been specific input, we could have reviewed specific projects. As the tip was that this could by systematic, we undertook a broader review. To this day, I don't quite fully understand what this person's motives were."
Aaviksoo noted that the committee will also have to determine who exactly was spoken to during the internal audit. "This will certainly affect very many people," he said. "There is a gray area in there somewhere. Measuring hours worked is complicated. What's most important to the university is that the results live up to what was promised."
The rector promised to provide an initial overview of the committee's investigation in a week's time, adding that it would subsequently be revealed whether control mechanisms in place to monitor the use of project funding need to be strengthened somehow.
Finance minister: EU funds abused less than average in Estonia
Minister of Finance Mart Helme (EKRE) likewise commented on the matter at Thursday's press conference.
"If we look at other European states, the abuse of EU funds in Estonia is below the European average," Helme said. "We have a separate unit in the Ministry of Finance tasked with monitoring EU support, and if necessary will recover the money."
It's sad to read when something like this happens, he continued, adding that he has zero tolerance for this sort of thing. "If it's possible for us to use EU funds, then we have to pay careful attention to ensure that it is used rationally, for its intended purpose, and honestly."
Prime Minister Jüri Ratas (Centre) said that he had spoken to Aaviksoo about the matter and now they must await the results of the university's investigative committee.
"We have to wait for the report and then we'll see," Ratas said. "If there is information that the same thing is happening in other universities, it needs to be exposed."
Editor: Aili Vahtla