Prosecutor general: I will not argue with politicians
Prosecutor General Lavly Perling, robbed of her second term by opposition from the Conservative People's Party (EKRE), avoids saying a few choice words about politicians and does not rule out returning to court where corruption is fought every day. "I like to work as a prosecutor in court."
How to console you?
I do not need consoling. I'm perfectly fine.
You were prepared to serve as prosecutor general for another five years.
Indeed. I told the justice minister as much when it came up. On the other hand, the question of whether to keep the recent person on or find someone else always arises when one's term ends.
So, there are no grounds for hurt feelings or getting emotional.
You must be at least disappointed that the government's majority was unable to convince the minority?
I will not engage in political discussions as prosecutor general. The only thing I can say is that a lot of work has been done over the past five years and that I'm surrounded by a strong team capable of developing the justice system.
Of course, when your heart is in your work, you feel that some things could have been done better and some things were left unfinished, but that is likely a feeling every leader knows.
Did you hope EKRE leaders would change their minds or that they would be changed for them by the Centre Party and Isamaa?
I generally do not engage in simply hoping. I have been concentrating on making sure prosecutors can work, proceedings come along and everyone [prosecutors] would dare take the most complicated cases to court during this period of uncertainty.
Have EKRE heads told you why they feel a new prosecutor general is needed?
I have not met with the heads of EKRE or discussed this matter with them.
Neither Mart nor Martin Helme have talked to you?
I have met Mart Helme once and briefly met with Martin Helme at a meeting. We have not discussed the prosecution beyond a short conversation I had with Mart Helme.
Do you see any grounds for this opposition against you?
I hope these are not attitudes against me specifically, and I would refrain from speculating concerning opinions, perceptions and suppositions. And I would definitely refrain from going into what I think about individual political parties. The Riigikogu Constitutional Committee has members from EKRE, including its chairman [Paul Puustusmaa], and I rather got the impression he was satisfied with the prosecution's work.
The prosecution has three important goals in society, as I see it.
Supporting those who have suffered as a result of crimes, so they would not lose faith in the justice system and would believe the state is there for them in difficult times.
The second goal is to influence criminals based on what they've done. If in the case of minors, we could be talking about social programs or therapy, the other end of the spectrum has people for whom criminal activity is a way of life, which is when the prosecutor will have to stand up and seek lengthy prison sentences and confiscation of criminal proceeds.
The third goal is cooperation to ensure quality of the things we take to trial by involving economic experts, auditors, medical experts etc.
Is everything just peachy all the time?
No. We get 27,000 registered offenses every year and are constantly in the middle of 10,000-11,000 criminal proceedings. We prosecute 13,000 persons every year. I can also take a critical look at the prosecution and say there are things that could be better. However, in the grand scheme of things, I believe the prosecution has become more human. I also believe it has become faster. Our prosecutors are smarter and smarter. And they have had to take complicated things to trial and compete in adversarial procedure.
What about the case of former Tartu deputy mayor Artjom Suvorov who has been acquitted in two instances. What will the prosecution do? Appeal to the Supreme Court?
That is up to the case prosecutors to decide.
It makes sense acquittals are paid more attention. But lawyers need to keep both feet on the ground and remember there are always two possibilities – conviction and acquittal. Which is not to say prosecutors should go to court lightly.
Acquittals are always scrutinized. We see people acquitted after court action, while we can also see people acquitted because of mistakes made by the prosecutor. We analyze all such cases very thoroughly.
On the other hand, prosecutors must not be robbed of their courage to take complicated matters to trial as relevant circumstances would never be brought to light otherwise. That is not a country we would like to live in.
Have you overlooked money laundering as claimed by the Helmes?
Far from it. The prosecution set its sights on money laundering already back in 2007-2008, sooner even. We have seized assets, even though we've often had to release them later because legislation was not there yet. Perhaps we were not ready at the beginning; there was not enough cooperation between different institutions. But I commend the prosecutors who had the courage to go after these things and combat money laundering back then.
We have hundreds of ongoing money laundering cases right now, while not all of them are major. But it shows we notice money laundering and can react today.
Opponents will say that Estonian banks were used to launder billions.
Billions did move through our banks.
And all those billions from the east were money laundering?
No. Things have gotten mixed up in the media, with people talking about colossal sums and how it's all money laundering. We can talk about the latter in cases where we know the money has been obtained illegally and then moved through the banking system.
So, not all money that moves through Estonia is money laundering.
We have examples of Estonian investigative agencies fighting money laundering in international cooperation. We have managed to uncover serious cybercrime, working with the United States, that also included money laundering and brought the treasury more than €18 million through criminal proceedings, plus another €800,000 from the Americans in recognition of international cooperation.
We learned recently that one of the key players in the global fight against money laundering Bill Browder does not dare come to Estonia and one must fly to London to meet him. What or who does he fear in Estonia?
I cannot answer that question.
I know Estonia is a safe place that has capable authorities in charge of safety and security. It is definitely a safe place to meet.
Minister of Finance Martin Helme recently said that "nothing is ever done about money laundering in Estonia, and even if something is done, it always comes to nothing." Does he have it right?
I will talk about facts and statistics. The number of registered money laundering offenses is on the rise – from 40 cases a few years ago to 181 cases registered this year alone. Not all of it is major money laundering that concerns the financial system, but I can assure you we also have such cases that we are prepared to take to court.
Talking about money laundering, the situation has changed. The banks have changed, the rules they have to follow have changed. They have adopted technical solutions that help find suspicious transactions from masses of data. The justice system, money laundering data bureau – everyone have come along and are better able to combat money laundering than ever before.
Helme also warned that "the Americans do not take seriously talk of money laundering in a situation where no one is punished – we amend laws and reduce the risk, but it cannot be taken seriously without punishments." Is that so?
I will not engage in debates with politicians. I can only say, from the point of view of the justice system, that if you talk to our American colleagues, whether prosecutors, investigative organs or the FBI, they will tell you Estonian authorities and the prosecution have pursued direct and effective cooperation with them.
We do not talk about our major cases often because international cooperation is a matter of trust and must at times be handled with discretion. But our prosecutors are commended as they are nice young people who speak several languages and dare take part in investigative meetings, as they should be in a small country like Estonia. Our U.S. colleagues have been pleasantly surprised by what our teams have had to show them.
Still, we haven't convicted a single banker?
These proceedings always take a lot of time. Thinking about the amount of data involved, we're talking about thousands upon thousands of firms and relevant transactions that require analysis. It all takes time.
The criminal origin of money needs to be shown for all of those companies.
Absolutely. There is no money laundering if we can't prove predicate offenses. It is a lot of work.
However, Estonia has little to be ashamed of when it comes to the speed of [processing] major and serious corruption and economic offenses compared to other countries.
Minister of Justice Raivo Aeg asked you to stay on in the capacity of acting prosecutor general. You took some time to think and accepted. Why?
I came in [on October 24] and talked to my people about whether I should stay on as acting prosecutor general or leave from November 1.
Thinking of the work we do and about keeping things running smoothly, I understood that because I care a great deal about how the prosecution and administration of justice are doing in Estonia, I am prepared to continue bearing this responsibility. For as long as I can pass it on to a new, strong and professional prosecutor general.
How long are you willing to work as acting prosecutor general, knowing you will not get the job?
I would not speculate on that…
Are we talking about months, years?
I believe the justice minister when he says he is looking for a new prosecutor general and will find them. I will concentrate on doing my job, supporting my people and helping them prosecute major cases.
Will you help the minister in his search for a candidate?
I've told him that the prosecution has plenty of people capable of serving as prosecutor general, but I'm sure the minister will want to make his own choice.
How easy is it to get good people on board in this situation that Raivo Aeg said EKRE has rendered spicy and complicated?
That question should be put to the justice minister. I believe the office of the prosecutor general is of key importance in the justice system.
Right now, it is a question for the people you and the justice minister see as potential candidates.
These people need to evaluate the situation and decide what they want, what they can offer the prosecution and their motivation for accepting a potential offer.
Should the prosecutor general come from within the prosecution or from the outside?
As prosecutor general, I believe this building has enough people who would be capable leaders. On the other hand, a leader from the outside, thinking internationally – there are countries where people move freely between courts and the prosecution, including on the highest level.
I've said, had I stayed on as prosecutor general, that Estonia is prepared to see judges come work at the prosecution because I believe this kind of free movement creates new quality, keeps everyone on their toes and brings fresh blood. Everyone would benefit.
Therefore, to have a former judge as prosecutor general would not be bad at all.
What would you recommend they change?
I would suggest taking some time to see, think, really delve deep before making changes.
I have made no secret of the fact that when I started, topics close to my heart included children, the economy and security (crimes against children, economic and corruption crime and offenses against the state – ed). I was obsessed with making criminal proceedings more centered around the person, so that we would talk and write in a language people could understand. Look at how closely we work with victim support, family doctors and therapists today.
What I regret is that we could have been more effective in terms of development of investigating white collar crime. That said, look at the fight against organized crime – how many underground bosses have been convicted or are awaiting trial. Prosecutors have been successful here.
What will you do next?
I will take it one step at a time and concentrate on the work that I still need to do as acting prosecutor general.
I'm sure you've thought a little further ahead than that.
There are thoughts. I must admit I've always enjoyed the work of a trial lawyer. That is the reason I turned down the post of prosecutor general twice in the past. Because I like to work as a prosecutor in court. And a trial lawyer really only has two options. The prosecution or the bar.
Will you become an attorney?
No, I will not. Rather, I will take it slow, wait for the new prosecutor general and think about picking up where I left off in the prosecution – fighting white collar crime.
EKRE wants special prosecutors, meaning you could work as a special prosecutor for public sector corruption?
Everything is mixed up in this question, EKRE's ideas and special prosecutors etc. I would not go that far. Rather, I will say that I've always enjoyed the profession of a prosecutor, and the fact I've had to serve as prosecutor general was pure chance and an opportunity to make the institution better, stronger.
I will wait and see, talk to the people who are important to me and make my decision.
Perhaps you'll go into politics?
I do not see that happening at this time. I'm not one to use big words to refer to politics. There is no sense in glorifying any sector, position or field.
But no, I'm not considering going into politics today.
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Editor: Marcus Turovski