Puppet Theatre told to return €63,000 of grants

Meelis Pai

PHOTO: Stanislav Moshkov/Õhtuleht

Independent audit finds Puppet Theatre must pay back part of EU project support not used expediently. The sum to be returned is €73,000 which for the theatre is one month’s salaries or the budget for a year’s worth of new productions.

The projects the grants were asked for fate back to 2009–2010 while Meelis Pai headed the institution. The projects were «Contemporary museum crossing cultural boundaries» in cooperation with Latvian and Lithuanian puppet theatres, and «Culture on streets» with Hungarian, Finnish and Lithuanian puppet theatres. The total budget was €244,400, a half of which came from EU. According to PFK Littlejohn LLP, an auditor, over a half of the sum is to be returned as the expediency of its use is insufficiently proven.  

«An independent European auditor worked in our house at the end of 2012 and in the beginning of 2013. That’s the very time when replacement of then head Meelis Pai was being actively considered,» said current head of the theatre Joonas Tartu who took Mr Pai’s place as the latter stepped down in April of 2013. «As I came in, the auditor had just left and started to write its conclusions.»

The auditor said things were bad and asked for additional information. Looking into the expediency of use of the grants, the theatre discovered strange papers.  

«The use of the grants was substantiated by invoices which are in no way linked to the project. We found invoices written personally: the head of the theatre takes a piece of paper, writes some sum on it, and says this is now the rent for using the house in connection with this project. The Puppet Theatre wrote the Puppet Theatre an invoice for the necessary sum,» described Mr Tartu.

The auditor offered an opportunity to correct the mistakes, to find additional reasons and to find the correct invoices. According to Mr Tartu, the theatre found these not.

«We realised the mistake had been made and there was nothing to argue about. My stand is we will not lie, beat about the bush, dig out some fictitious bills,» said Mr Tartu. He concluded the project money was used for other purposes in Mr Pai’s days, probably for daily life. And when money came in, it was used up – to settle other debts.

Yesterday, Meelis Pai found all to have been basically okay with the money. «Well where else was the money used than for the theatre. Maybe the rental of theatre facilities for project use is not eligible for support. If so, it needs to be paid back. All these side activities support the main activity, which is putting on the shows,» explained Mr Pai. He underlined that while he was head of the theatre, in 2000–2013, it received a total of 70 million kroons of EU support, but now only one million worth has to be paid back in euros.  

Later, Mr Pai added : «NUKU [the name of the Puppet Theatre – edit] is in a difficult situation as the audience has dropped 50 percent: 127,000 visits in 2012. But only 61,000 in 2014.»

Mr Tartu recognises achievements of Mr Pai: «Under the leadership of Meelis Pai, the theatre underwent tremendous change and development. Among other things, the puppet theatre museum was built for support money. Nobody will deny this. Alas, regrettable things also happened.»

Joonas Tartu hopes the state will help the theatre. «From the beginning, we have been talking about this with foundation NUKU chairman and culture ministry theatre adviser Hillar Sein and chancellor Paavo Nõgene. At the moment, there is no decision regarding ministry paying the debt. Being a governmental sector institution, we cannot stay in debt. This would damage Estonia’s reputation as recipient of EU support and may undermine many future projects.»

Theatre advisor Hillar Sein said he learned about audit results on Monday. «Next Friday the foundation’s council will convene; we will read the audit and take a decision. I cannot further specify at the moment. We will have to find a way to settle the claim. Probably, the council will address culture ministry, what else can we do.»

Meelis Pai stepped back as puppet theatre head in April 2013 as audit in the theatre revealed budget deficit of €364,000 and pointed out violations of financial discipline. In the productions «Pooh» and «Shrek», unauthorised material had been used; Estonian Author’s Society also filed complaints. In the summer of 2013, Mr Pai joined Centre Party and was employed as adviser to mayor. He was the author responsible for the giant foamed plastic Ülemiste Oldie statue brought fourth before local elections in 2013.