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Deputy mayor detained on suspicions of involvement in waste business

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PHOTO: Martin Ilustrumm

Minister of Internal Affairs Andres Anvelt (SDE) was in for a surprise at work yesterday. The weekly priorities of the law enforcement agencies that report to him included detainment of Tallinn Deputy Mayor Arvo Sarapuu (Center Party).

This was allegedly the first time a politician learned the Estonian Internal Security Service (KAPO) had spent three months investigating potential corruption at Tallinn city government, ruled by the social democrats' coalition partner the Center Party. Because the agenda is meant for the interior minister's eyes only and qualifies as a state secret, Anvelt could not share the information with his partners in the government.

Prime Minister Jüri Ratas, who had landed in Brussels in preparation for the unofficial NATO summit, was in for an unpleasant surprise on Thursday morning. News of Sarapuu having been detained on suspicions of corruption reached the PM when he had just stepped off the plane in Brussels and was in the middle of discussing the possibility of meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump with Estonia's Ambassador to NATO Lauri Lepik.

This came as another blow in a chain of bad news for the prime minister. Ratas had accepted the letter of resignation of State Administration Minister Mihhail Korb the previous evening.

Suspicions brought by the public prosecutor's office suggest Sarapuu had been fooling the public for the past month in claiming he had no interests in the capital's waste business. Yesterday revealed the prosecution and the internal security service have had their doubts for some time.

When Sarapuu exited the back door of Tallinn city government several hours after he was detained, escorted by KAPO operatives, and got into the backseat of the agents' black Subaru Outback, his usually jovial expression was dead serious – he had handed Acting Mayor Taavi Aas his letter of resignation moments before.

Taavi Aas was meanwhile smiling in front of cameras inside the city government building. Even though he should have reason to be concerned, having defended Sarapuu on numerous occasions by claiming the city's internal control service has not come across anything suspicious concerning the deputy mayor.

The public prosecutor's office and KAPO launched an investigation into whether Sarapuu could have a personal stake in Tallinn's waste business when the city government approved Baltic Waste Management (BWM) as the capital's new waste handler on March 1.

An official criminal investigation gave the security service the right to collect evidence: order surveillance, follow and record Sarapuu if necessary. While Postimees does not know whether investigators managed to obtain evidence of communication between Sarapuu and head of BWM Kaido Laanjärv, after two months of surveillance, suspicions were also brought against the latter whom Sarapuu has denied having met. The third suspect is Sarapuu's son-in-law Margo Tomingas who is a member of the board of Sarapuu's company ATKO Grupp.

Yesterday's events came as especially bad news for Tomingas as he already has a major problem on his hands: he is being tried for offering a bribe to an employee of the General Staff of the Defense Forces.

Here are the facts concerning Tallinn's foul-smelling waste operation as they stood by yesterday evening: the public prosecutor's office suspects that Sarapuu's ATKO Grupp financed waste handler BWM that lacked the necessary resources to offer the capital waste management services. Suspicions against Sarapuu speak of violation of procedural restrictions. This suggests Sarapuu must have pulled strings in the city government to secure BWM with the winning bid. While Postimees is unaware of what that pulling of strings entailed exactly, Sarapuu's signature on the waste management contract is a possibility.

Acting Mayor Taavi Aas said yesterday that his recently modest interest in the deputy mayor's activities is the fault of the prosecution that failed to share its suspicions with the city government. “We have been in touch with [party chairman] Jüri Ratas, and we see no way for Arvo Sarapuu to continue as a member of the city government,” Aas announced yesterday.

The city government had made it known it would be terminating its contract with BWM the day before. “I'm very glad that BWM cannot continue handling Tallinn's waste. I assure you that when we made that decision we had no idea an investigation was underway,” Aas said.

Sarapuu's arrest also shines poor light on his wife MP Kersti Sarapuu (Center) whose initiative saw an amendment proposal to the Public Procurements Act that would allow local governments to create municipal monopolies and transport waste without having to fear competition entered into Riigikogu proceedings.

Detainment of the faction chairman's husband probably bodes ill for the amendment proposal's chances in the parliament. Kersti Sarapuu did not answer Postimees' calls yesterday.

The prosecution and KAPO did not deem it necessary to detain Sarapuu for long. The deputy mayor was allowed to go home once procedural matters had been taken care of by yesterday evening. Sarapuu's defender is Edgar Savisaar's lawyer Oliver Nääs who promised he would have comments by Friday.

Should the suspicions turn out to have merit, one might ask whether the fact Sarapuu promptly paid back the money he illegally used for campaign advertising and gave up his seat in the Riigikogu had something to do with hopes of benefiting far more from the capital's waste business. The public prosecutor's office said it has no information to suggest Sarapuu has already benefited financially from Tallinn's waste management.

Prime Minister, Center Party Chairman Jüri Ratas remained optimistic, despite back-to-back setbacks that have hit his party. “There is a saying in the world of sports that if you fall, you just have to get up and go on. That is also the case in politics. People who are afraid would do well to steer clear of politics. Rather I believe that these things need to be fixed, that things need to improve,” he said.

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