Construction business chief Aivar Tuulberg appeared at Harju County court Thursday, Baltic News Service reports, for his part of the ongoing Edgar Savisaar corruption hearings, where he denied trying to bribe the former mayor. Tuulberg is one of six businessmen charged with involvement, which also saw the Centre Party, which Savisaar co-founded, face charges. The allegations mostly surround the awarding of the Kultuurikatel Creative Hub in Tallinn to Rand & Tuulberg, as well as procurement for the Kalev sports stadium.
Tuulberg denies bribery, saying that €50,000 he took out from Nordea Bank on Dec. 9 2014 was for financing yachting competitions he was involved in. Tuulberg's associate in the sailing venture, Mati Sepp, had appeared in court on Tuesday and said the practice of using large cash payments for boat rentals, maintenance etc. is standard practice.
The trial of Savisaar himself was wound up at the end of 2018 on the grounds of health issues, which had dogged the on-off trial that passed up all three tiers of the Estonian court system, county, circuit and supreme courts. The latter upheld the county court original decision that Savisaar's health precluded him from standing trial. Savisaar had stood down as mayor in September 2015 as a result of the original prosecutor's office investigation.
The charges revolved around the giving and taking of bribes, embezzlement of party funds, money laundering and illicit donations, largely in the period 2014-2015 when Savisaar was still Tallinn mayor.
Most of the co-accused, including the Centre Party, have had their hearings hived off from the Savisaar core of the case, and several have come to plea bargain agreements (see timeline below). The Centre Party was forced to pay €25,000 to the state as well as another €200,000, suspended for six months provided the party does not commit any more infringements.
Tuulberg: Charges have political dimension
Tuulberg also claimed in court on Thursday that the accusations against him were politically motivated.
"According to the rationale at the prosecutor's office, if you go to a bank and subsequently meet with a leading politician, it immediately means that money was handed over," Tuulberg said, according to BNS.
The €50,000 which Tuulberg had withdrawn from the bank in late 2014 was significant in that he stands accused of giving €80,000 in backhanders to Edgar Savisaar to obtain procurement tenders, in two installments. The larger sum was also withdrawn at around the same time Rand & Tuulberg won the Kultuurikatel contract.
The remaining €30,000 Tuulberg said was also related to his yachting hobby, this time for a sailing camp in Bangkok, Thailand.
Tuulberg's sailing associate Mati Sepp had already appeared in court Tuesday, where he said that the pair had co-financed their sailing competitions, on the basis of ability to pay, with Tuulberg shouldering the initial investments. He also said that cash payments in that area were the norm.
The alleged bribe was used to knock out a competing bidder for the Kutluurikatel, in favor of Rand & Tuulberg and Astlanda Ehitus as joint bidders.
Tuulberg had also been charged with discussing possible backhanders to Savisaar at his home, but Tuulberg said the pair had discussed a possible sauna complex the former mayor wanted erecting, and not about public procurements, with nothing concrete coming from the meeting.
"Savisaar simply wanted to ask for advice," Tuulberg said, according to BNS.
"I found in the file that I had met him for 15 minutes and I also recall a sentence, 'second and fourth place are the shittiest places'. I suppose anyone can interpret this sentence in their own way," he continued, explaining that they had likely been discussing sailing.
Tuulberg also said that Savisaar had no leeway in interfering in procurement for Kultuurikatel in any case.
"Public procurement is the most tightly controlled procurement of all. Competition checks everything in the smallest detail," Tuulberg said.
Accusations harmed Rand & Tuulberg as a business, Tuulberg says
Tuulberg also related the details of his detention in connection with the charges, and negative effects the charges had had on Rand & Tuulberg as a business.
"All the newspapers were filled with it, even the English-language ones, and each article featured a mandatory sentence concerning the criminal case," he said.
"The construction company to fall the hardest in 2016 was Rand & Tuulberg, while Astlanda came in second place. There were also objective reasons [for this], but it was clear that no one was going to say outright that you won't get a contract because you're corrupt," Tuulberg said.
Tuulberg business associates already appeared in court, said bribery not even possible under current law
Tuulberg was echoing comments his business associates had made in the hearing on Tuesday and Wednesday.
"I have no information about someone having been bribed in connection with the Kultuurikatel tender. The Public Procurement Act is clear and transparent," said Taivo Täht, Rand & Tullberg board member, BNS reports.
Täht noted that the successful bid by Rand & Tuulberg and Astlanda Ehitus was aimed at dispersing risks evenly.
"I can see no point whatsoever in offering benefits in tenders and cannot see any benefit as being able to influence the outcome of a tender in one direction or another," Täht added.
Hardo Sokk of Astlanda also said that competing bidders had presented incorrect data, meaning they had to be put out of the running under the Public Procurement Act 2017, which he added makes things so transparent that even in theory, bribery would not be possible.
Sokk said that his team drew up the documents which led to the elimination of the competing bidders (and original contract awardees), Antifire Tuleohutuslahendused OÜ and OÜ Tafrix , and that Tuulberg had had nothing to do with the process.
On Tuesday, Kalev sports society manager Aleksander Tammert said that while a meeting at Savisaar's office regarding the Kalev stadium was agreed with Tuulberg's help, Tuulberg also did not take part in any bids.
The case is ongoing.
The Kultuurikatel contract was worth €3,146,664.15 plus VAT, BNS reports, and was concluded with Astlanda Ehitus/Rand & Tuulberg in December 2014.
Savisaar corruption trial Timeline
Several co-defendants in a notably complex case have already had their hearings, in some cases having their aspects to the case separated from the main hearings and coming to plea bargain agreements. The Centre Party itself has also been on trial as a legal entity. The following is a brief summary of the story so far.
Apr. 2007: Edgar Savisaar, Centre Party co-founder and former prime minister of Estonia elected Tallinn mayor, a little over two weeks before the "Bronze Soldier night" riots. His tenure is dogged with controversy even before the later allegations and trial, with charges of links to Russia, corruption, and differences of opinion on the handling of the Bronze Soldier night riots with the government of then-prime minister Andrus Ansip (Reform), all occuring, as well as various wars of words with then-president Toomas Hendrik Ilves.
March: After contracting a Streptococcal infection while on a trip to Thailand, Savisaar's right leg is amputated, above the knee.
Sept.: Internal Security Service (ISS) announces it is engaged in criminal investigations into Savisaar and six others in relation to bribery allegations. State prosecutor Lavly Perling confirms this and names the other six as Aivar Tuulberg, Alexander Kofkin, Vello Kunman, Hillar Teder, Kalev Kallo and Vello Reiljan. The initial charges concern accepting bribes worth hundreds of thousands of euros over the period 2014-2015 as regard Savisaar and the Centre Party, and the offering of bribes in the case of most of the co-defendants. Other charges related to corruption emerge in the course of the investigation.
Savisaar is suspended from office at the end of the month. Taavi Aas (Centre) becomes acting mayor.
Feb: Preliminary hearings into Edgar Savisaar corruption case, mainly involving charges of giving and taking bribes, embezzlement of party funds, illicit donations and money laundering, begin at Harju county court.
March: First time Savisaar's health issues, which eventually led to his own trial being wound up, emerge, as his defense counsel Oliver Nääs petitions court to suspend hearings.
June: Harju County Court opts to push forward in Savisaar hearings after medical examinations find no cause to halt them further. Savisaar is later hospitalized during hearings.
Sept.: Former Centre Party secretary general Priit Toobal refuses to testify at Harju County Court against his old boss.
Oct.: Co-defendant Priit Kutser, a former Tallinn city official, fails to provide proof of claimed. illness after not attending a hearing the previous month. Kutser's proceedings are later concluded for reasons of expediency.
Former MP and environment minster Villu Reiljan enters into a plea bargain which required him to pay just over €33,000 to state coffers.
Nov.: Savisaar hearing initially postponed to January 2018 on health issues. This later drags on through to summer 2018 as further medical evidence is examined amid claims made that Savisaar is unfit to stand trial, and that doing so may even endanger his life.
Feb: Chief State Prosecutor Steven-Hristo Evestus says Savisaar charges should be separated from those of co-defendants in order to make progress.
May-June: Following the results of Savisaar's medical assessment, Harju County Court closes his case, on health issues. The prosecutor's office appeals the decision.
Aug: Second-tier Circuit Court overturns the Harju County Court decision to close Savisaar's own case, calling the move premature, thus reopening it. Savisaar's defense say they will take the matter to the highest court in the land, the Supreme Court.
Dec.: Supreme Court upholds the Harju County Court's original decision to close Savisaar's tiral on health grounds.
Feb: Savisaar likely to receive €100,000 in funds confiscated through the trial, though not the full sum of over €200,000 he requested.
April: Trial of co-defendants in Savisaar case reopens.
May: co-defendant Kalev Kallo stripped of parliamentary immunity after charges of giving and receiving bribes.
June: Centre Party expresses desire to enter plea bargain with the prosecutor's office; its proceedings are separated form the bulk of the case, and the party is fined €250,000 suspended for six months pending no further infringements, as well as €25,000 which it has to pay up.
Businessman Hillar Teder admits to having provided a loan of €275,000 to former Centre Party campaign mastermind Paavo Pettai in 2014, amounting to covert financing for Centre. In a plea deal, Teder is ordered to pay €200,000 to the state.
Aug. 2019: At his Harju Court hearing, businessman Vello Kunman denies attempting to bribe the former Tallinn mayor. Kuman's defense counsel Paul Keres tries unsuccessfully to call co-defendant Villu Reiljan (see above) as a witness.
At his hearing, businessman Alexander Kofkin denies attempting to bribe Savisaar. A witness said that Kofkin had paid Savisaar's medical bills after treatment in Malaga, Spain.
Sept.: Aivar Tuulberg hearing commences.
Sentences in the cases of Tuulberg, Kofkin and Kallo have yet to be concluded. As noted Teder and Reiljan, as well as the Centre Party itself, entered into plea bargains, and Kutser's case was wound up.
Editor: Andrew Whyte