A week before the start of the new academic year, Postimees launched an attack on supposedly rampant corruption in Estonian universities. The first to take flak was TalTech, followed by the University of Tartu. The phenomenon was described as systematic – just the tip of the iceberg revealed by a whistleblower, writes Jaan Raik, member of TalTech's Ragnar Nurkse institute investigative committee.
The public was treated to stories about "robber academics" and "puppet masters" who embezzled EU funds, falsified work schedules, weaved schemes and paid the university "protection." As a TalTech employee, I was often asked what was going on at the university?
It was clear that the good name of TalTech and its successful Ragnar Nurkse Department of Innovation and Governance had been dragged through the mud. The story also left a mark on several respected top scientists who were made out to be criminals overnight.
The university's credibility at stake
It was crucial for the university to understand what had happened. We needed to determine whether accusations were justified and punish anyone responsible. For that purpose, TalTech quickly put together an audit committee I had the honor of belonging to as a representative of the scientific community.
We knew that the criminal police were already investigating the case at the same time. The Ministry of Education and Research put together a committee of its own in early September. It was clear that any justification by TalTech would have been interpreted as an attempt to whitewash things and hide fraud. The university's good name was at stake.
Work done by the committee was extensive. We needed to interview all sides suspect to the project, a dozen people altogether, go over project contracts and accounting and review the factual material: published and outstanding papers, project reports, applications, correspondence.
Our investigation concentrated on the central claim of Postimees' accusations, according to which project funds were used to pay six scientists who allegedly never worked on it.
All project participants were glad to share materials at their disposal with the audit committee. The only exception was the whistleblower who refused to hand over his recordings. Therefore, we could only use sound clips Postimees had already published. The latter were short and did not shed light on the context of the conversation.
There is nothing reprehensible about the head of the institute saying that its survival is a priority for him. The clips did not help shed light on our object of inquiry – the contribution of different scientists to the project. In short, we had no use for such information.
That is why we had to rely on interviews and project documentation. No-one attacked the whistleblower during their interviews. On the contrary, he was described as an intelligent and capable student, while project lead Robert Krimmer referred to him as the best doctoral student he ever had.
Interviews and the work plan included in the [OpenGovIntelligence] project's grant contract painted a very different picture than the one presented by Postimees. It remained unclear what the suspicions had even been based on.
Neither the whistleblower nor the journalist mention on which document they developed the conviction that work done by the so-called core group in charge of the project's demonstrator covered work for the entire project. Not once do they point out the project plan, an annex of the grant contract, that detailed TalTech's tasks and obligations that went far beyond a demonstrator.
The whistleblower's comments suggested he believed working on the project only entailed the realization of the demonstrator and forwarding project reports to the European Commission. Theoretical research and publication of project results was not seen as integral.
It is depressing to think about the hours scientists who found themselves the targets of these allegations had to spend to prove they are not camels and that they did in fact work for the project. There were a lot of "facts" and accusations to refute. Most turned out to be baseless.
A good example of this is the following section from a Postimees article. "Data suggests the institute might also have taken the university for a ride. For example, when Drechsler was paid €4,280 for a smaller research project. Once more, Drechsler is not listed as being involved in the initial application, and other authors, McBride and Toots, know nothing about his involvement. There is no public record of his participation."
Correspondence shared with the audit committee proves that professor Drechsler talked to all three aforementioned persons, asking them to cooperate in the format of the competency center in question.
A Google search using the keywords "Drechsler digital governance competency center" produces as the fourth item a reference to professor Drechsler's article in the journal Diplomaatia the closing sentence of which reads: "… has been created as part of the TalTech Digital Governance Center of Excellence initiative headed by Robert Krimmer." One is tempted to inquire whether the journalist researched the subject beforehand and using which methods…
At a press conference following the committee's intermediary report, I communicated the committee's position that project communication was lacking. Project lead professor Krimmer gave tasks to professors and students, keeping the big picture to himself and failing to organize general team meetings.
The reason is likely that Krimmer belongs to the Austrian school that lacks a clear hierarchy. Such management created a problem regarding the project at hand as it now turns out. That said, it is one way of managing research projects and is neither extraordinary nor criminal in nature.
It is definitely not grounds to make director of the Nurkse institute Erkki Karo and project lead Robert Krimmer out to be embezzlers or authors of schemes. Much less was Karo a puppet master in this case. He became director of the department once the project was already underway.
In addition, employee selection is the responsibility of the project lead and not the director as it is the former's task to put together the team and distribute tasks. An accountant could not have been in on the "scheme" as claimed by Postimees simply because institutes don't have one.
Bombshell out of nowhere
Even after the conclusions of the intermediary report of the audit committee, according to which evidence of scheming had not been found, the newspaper did not change its allegations to "possible" embezzlement. Postimees continued to generate new stories at a superhuman pace. Journalists created three or four stories a day out of thin air. But the rest of the media did not go along with it, and the topic gradually died down. The investigation continued.
The committee finished its work on September 27 and presented its final conclusions that found problems with following the university's rules but could not find evidence of scheming, much less systematic scheming. The committee was disbanded by order of the rector three days later.
What is most frightening about this incident for me is how easily a bombshell could be generated virtually from nothing at all. I was baffled by a newspaper editorial board's superficial and demonizing behavior that is still continuing.
What happened makes one think of the responsibility of the media in general. How to ensure more thorough and expert fact checks before one rushes into conclusions? It would have been enough for the journalist to receive advice from scientists who have managed similar European projects in the past. It would have been possible to find such a person in both Tallinn and Tartu to avoid a possible conflict of interest. It is likely the article would never have been written in that case.
What is even worse is that while people involved in the scandal gave journalists additional information, the latter's mudslinging continued unabated, even though facts were public and could have easily been verified. Why was that information ignored? What did they really know and by when?
Perhaps we will see an apology by a conscientious journalist one day. While it would not make up for all that has happened and would be unlikely to captivate readers, common sense must prevail in the end and researchers given back their peace of mind.
* Professor Jaan Raik is head of TalTech's Center for Dependable Computing Systems at the School of Information Technologies. He has coordinated several European framework program projects and is a former member of the Estonian Research Council's appraisal committee. Professor Raik was a member of the TalTech Nurkse institute audit committee until its dissolution on September 30, 2019.
Editor: Marcus Turovski