Head of the Läänemaa Psychosocial Rehabilitation Center (LPRK) Svetlana Reinsalu embezzled a total of around €67,000 from clients of her care facility – people with limited legal capacity and grappling with severe intellectual and numerous physical disabilities.
„It was not intentional; however, I had a facility to run. State financing was not enough to make ends meet. I did not take that money for myself – it was used to pay bills we couldn't pay otherwise,“ Reinsalu said when asked why she misused her position to go after the money of defenseless people. The 57-year-old woman was clearly disturbed by my journalistic interest, her sentences finished in deep sighs and breaths.
Despite her remorse, Reinsalu's actions were so serious she was found guilty and handed a conditional sentence of two years and six months, with one month to be served immediately, in the Haapsalu Courthouse of Pärnu County Court on May 10. The remaining punishment is subject to a four-year probation period. There is also a roughly €67,000 civil claim against Reinsalu.
The story began nearly 17 years ago when Reinsalu and her colleague founded NGO Läänemaa Psychosical Rehabilitation Center in August of 2000. A little more than five years later, local paper Lääne Elu published a piece on a new center for people with severe intellectual and physical disabilities to be opened in Lihula. That center was the LPRK.
„This kind of a home model where we deliver very difficult clients from the social welfare institution and create for them a home is the first of its kind in Estonia,“ Reinsalu told Lääne Elu at the time. „There is greater demand for such a service. Estonia would need at least two more such centers.“
Despite this great demand, Reinsalu went after the wallets of her clients in 2006, the very next year. This was made possible by the then family act that placed clients under the guardianship of managers of institutions.
This gave Reinsalu access to her clients' bank accounts where their monthly invalidity pension payments were made. Reinsalu used the accounts of seven clients to embezzle thousands of euros.
Reinsalu first started making transfers from clients' accounts to several others in early May 2006. She transferred money to her personal account, but also those of LPRK and subsidiary OÜ SRP Rehhabil. While the fact Reinsalu transferred sums was not illegal in itself, as clients were supposed to pay a cost-sharing component, that is where it should have ended.
Unfortunately, Reinsalu transferred a total of €67,080 from people's bank accounts over the years. She embezzled the most money (€16,337.12) from a person suffering from a severe intellect, mobility, language and speech disability. The next sum was €11,000, followed by sums of fewer than €10,000 embezzled from other clients.
Reinsalu's scheme started coming to light when Urvaste parish government's social adviser Maarika Tikman set about performing her legal duty in 2013. Stricter reporting requirements prescribed more specific reports for courts.
„Writing up the report, the official came across inconsistencies on a ward's bank account,“ current social adviser Kersti Kõrge explained.
Tikman turned to the National Social Insurance Board to bring supervision proceedings that later led to a criminal investigation. Case prosecutor, Assistant Prosecutor of Lääne District Prosecutor's Office Agnes Ollema-Barndõk, said that most of the remaining parishes learned of misuse as a result of the criminal investigation.
„Local governments trusted Reinsalu to look after their wards, which also gave her access to their bank accounts. That is how misuse was made possible,“ the assistant prosecutor said.
Ollema-Barndõk said that Reinsalu took money from clients' bank accounts when she or the institution needed it. „The offender had a very good overview of her clients' financial situation and income,“ the prosecutor said.
Lax legislation to blame
Reinsalu was aware that what she was doing was illegal. „I understood [that it was criminal – J. V.], but bills had to be paid,“ Reinsalu said in her defense. She maintains she did not embezzle the funds for personal gain. The prosecutor, after analyzing bank statements and evidence, disagreed.
„The offender lived beyond her means and had an expensive hobby – she collected coins, which she claimed she later sold or gave away as gifts,“ Ollema-Barndõk said.
The assistant prosecutor added that was the reason why only a part of Reinsalu's coin collection was seized to cover the civil claim. The court appraised the remaining 27 coins at €945, which is good enough for a little more than 1 percent of the €67,000 claim.
Can clients hope to see the rest of their money? Reinsalu said she will do everything she can to pay them back.
The prosecutor remains less optimistic. „The hope of satisfying the civil claim is slim as the accused person's apartment is under a notion concerning prohibition in connection with earlier claims that made it impossible to seize the property,“ Ollema-Barndõk said. The prosecutor added that a part of the sum from sale of the apartment could reach Reinsalu's former clients.
The story serves as an example of weak legislation that afforded the opportunity to steal from people who could not take care of themselves. The family act was amended in 2010 so that managers can no longer function as guardians.
Urvaste parish social adviser Kõrge believes the tale to be eye-opening and educational. „It had to happen so we could learn to keep an eye on our wards' bank accounts and understand that corresponding reports are more than a tedious obligation,“ she said.