Daily: Head of Taltech department says EU funds misuse a coping mechanism ({{contentCtrl.commentsTotal}})

Homepage of Taltech's Ragnar Nurkse Department of Innovation and Governance.
Homepage of Taltech's Ragnar Nurkse Department of Innovation and Governance. Source: ERR

While an in-house Tallinn University of Technology (Taltech) inquiry into alleged misuse of European Union funds at its Ragnar Nurkse Department of Innovation and Governance (RNI) cleared itself of any major wrongdoing on Tuesday, an article in daily Postimees has put things in a different light.

A recording of a conversation between head of the RNI, Erkki Karo, and the whistle blower who first brought the issue to light, was included in the piece.

Karo can be heard seeming to justify the practice of putting EU funds given for one purpose, to one side in order to be used for another, namely keeping the RNI in its current form afloat due to a lack of domestic funding. This meant, in Karo's view, that what had been done should not be referred to publicly as fraud, even though it was "not right" on some level.

Background

In August this year, a report in daily Postimees appeared after a whistle blower who had gone to Taltech Rector Jaak Aaviksoo in March to express concerns about what he saw as EU funding irregularities, which seemed to have gone unresolved, approached the paper. More Postimees articles followed.

The whistle blower, former RNI employee and current PhD student at Taltech, referred particularly to the OpenGovIntelligence (OGI) at the RNI, where monies had been received for work done on the project by people who had not actually worked on it and in at least one case were not even aware of its existence.

An interim report by Taltech said that no serious wrongdoing had occurred, and that the irregularities were simply oversights, particularly with regard to worksheets, adding the whistle blower had incomplete information on the details of the project.

The report published by Taltech on Tuesday reiterated this line, saying that no fraud had been engaged in and the university simply needed to improve its procedures, including training staff where necessary.

The report also said the Postimees allegations to date were without foundation.

Recorded conversation with RNI head

However, according to the latest Postimees piece (link in Estonian) on Wednesday, a recording of a conversation in English between McBride and Erkki Karo which the paper got hold of seems to contradict this.

While McBride refers to the practice of putting in timesheets which did not reflect reality as fraud, Karo sees it more as a necessary evil, saying that the institute, with seven or eight professors, would not get sufficient funding from the university and the Estonian government alone, meaning it needed to build up a "reserve" of funds from the EU to make itself viable in the long term.

Karo concedes that the practice is not right, and "sucks balls", but says it was nonetheless a necessary coping mechanism, adding that: "let's not call it fraud in public because otherwise the entire research system collapses."

McBride notes what he sees as a paradox in a department of public administration teaching people how to be better public administrators, not following its own advice and in fact running completely counter to this.

The piece also carried a screenshot of an online chat between McBride and the RNI's Professor Robert Krimmer, who urged caution in the matter and expressed a hope that the current more "flexible" way of doing things would be superseded by more "westernized" best practices in future – in spite of this candid and open conversation, Tuesday's Taltech report said that McBride had not received the full picture, inadvertently, on the workings of the OGI, from Krimmer, with whom he had pitched the project to EU funders at a presentation early in 2019.

Postimees also reported that Taltech says it has solid evidence that all professors contributed to the project as reported, though these have not been released to the media yet, and nor had the full transcript of the conversation between McBride and Karo, who was unavailable for comment, been known to the Taltech investigation committee before it published its report.

The Taltech internal report is not the last word on the matter. A prosecutor's office spokesperson told ERR News Wednesday that the investigation into the case is ongoing, and the European Commission is reportedly also investigating the matter.

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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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