Kadri Simson: I did not perceive a conflict of interest

PHOTO: Sander Ilvest

Minister of Economic Affairs and Infrastructure Kadri Simson (Center Party) says she does not detect a conflict of interest in her participation in awarding support for pig farmers as everyone around the negotiating table knew of her ties to then CEO of leading pig farmer HKScan, Teet Soorm.

OÜ Linnamäe Peekon that belongs in part to Simson’s partner Teet Soorm’s father knew to file an application in time to qualify for support negotiated as part of the coalition agreement. Simson’s role in coalition talks gives rise to suspicions that Linnamäe Peekon had access to inside information. Simson does not feel her conduct has been improper and says she will take political responsibility and resign only for something she has done.

Members of the Free Party and the Reform Party are seeking your resignation and have filed an interpellation to learn whether a pig farm with ties to Teet Soorm was awarded support based on inside information. You have said on numerous occasions that you do not see grounds for resignation. You probably haven’t changed your mind?

The Free Party’s interpellation was based largely on information published in the media that turned out not to have merit. I also understand that Hanno Pevkur’s interview (in the Wednesday issue of Postimees – ed.) is rather the result of confusion in the Reform Party. He said the party is in shock. The leading opposition force being in shock in no way interferes with my work.

The facts are that two days after future coalition partners agreed on support for pig farmers, a company with ties to Teet Soorm’s father, Linnamäe Peekon, filed an application to join performance testing that was a prerequisite for support. You realize that a situation where a company with ties to Teet Soorm takes necessary steps just in time to qualify for support looks like it’s based on inside information?

It is a fact that Postimees has erred against facts on several occasions. First, by claiming that Teet Soorm has been awarded maximum breeding support in a situation where no company belonging to Teet Soorm has been awarded support. (Postimees’ articles have used the phrasing “a pig farm tied to Teet Soorm” and referred to Soorm as the biggest beneficiary – ed.). Now the theory has been changed to target his father.

The second false claim is that Linnamäe Peekon has been awarded proportionally bigger support for young sows. That too was false.

Thirdly, the paper’s claim concerning timing. It was overturned by the owner right here in Postimees last week when he explained the pig farm was bought from Finnish company Atria whose animals were not accounted for in Estonia and had to be registered.

It was happenstance that the application to join performance control was filed a few days prior to partners agreeing on support for pig farmers during coalition talks?

I proceed from the owner’s interview to Postimees where they confirm just that.

Politics must not only be honest, it must also look honest. The sequence of facts raises questions. As an experienced politician, did you not consider the possibility your connection to Teet Soorm would lead to suspicions of conflict of interest?

I honestly did not because there were farmers at the table. The items the coalition agreed on where matters of promoting rural life that were put to the previous government only to be largely ignored. We had made several statements in support of farmers on the Center Party level before.

The question is not whether to support farmers. The question is whether interests have overlapped. You could have foreseen the situation and removed yourself from the deliberation.

We talked about support for the entire sector, not individual companies. Trade organizations had talked about the need for support for a long time. It’s helping sectors catch up.

Did you discuss support for pig farmers with Teet Soorm during coalition talks?

We did not even discuss the specifics of coalition talks, how it would work. The talks happened very quickly. We agreed on the fundamentals, while the details were left to future ministers.

Teet Soorm and Mati Tuvi said in their statement that followed official suspicions of corruption that it is punitive action by the heads of HKScan and hinted at police and prosecution bias, saying other businessmen could be looking at a similar fate in a situation where it is possible to employ the police in the service of business interests. A rather stark position. Your opinion?

I can assure you that the police and the prosecution will not be swayed in any way by any politician. They can go about their work in the usual manner. However, I will say that suspicion does not equal conviction. I hope work done by investigative organs will give us real answers.

Did you tell Teet Soorm he might have gone a little overboard with that statement?

I have not talked to him about that statement. I didn’t even notice it at the time.

How strong is support for you in the Center Party?

I believe support for me is strong in the party. People realize what this is. The opposition going after anyone and anything it believes can hurt the government. We can understand the Reform Party’s pain and the need to stage distractions in a situation where its current chairman is no longer leading the party while the new one is still in Brussels.

Have fellow Center Party members asked you why you decided not to tell them of a possible conflict of interest?

Members of the party are up to speed on earlier deliberations with pig farmers. Support for the sector is nothing that depended on my expertise. I merely supported people who stood up for Estonian farmers in the Center Party. Support for rural life has always been one of our principles.

Support for life in the country is important. The question is whether fellow party members have raised the issue of a possible conflict of interest in your personal life. Have they not asked you why you decided against removing yourself?

My personal life has never been a secret. Teet Soorm was the CEO of leading pig farmer HKScan during coalition talks a year ago. Everyone knew I was living with the person responsible for the daily running of Estonia’s largest pig farmer.

I was not acting in the interests of a single company. Any bias would surely have come up during negotiations with representatives of other parties. There was none. That is why the question was never raised, even though I live with Teet Soorm.

I believe that at first there was talk of €5 million in support for pig farmers. The final sum was €2 million. Whose was the initial proposal?

I do not know. We have tried to look for the source of rumors of €5 million, but haven’t found it. There is no such figure in my notes.

Will you still be in office a year from now?

The government has smoothed out its rough edges, we understand each other. I believe the government will work until March or even April 2019. I’m contributing to the government being able to achieve its goals.

Will you move on with the plan for free public transport? It has taken its fair share of flak. Is it necessary?

There has been a lot of criticism, but we will move on with the plan. At the heart of criticism has been the question of why do away with tickets in a situation where we need more frequent departures. And luckily calculations have included busier schedules. Local public transport centers can be given resources for more frequent departures.

Estonia will be covered with public transport centers by the end of the year the largest of which will be the North Estonian center. We have worked on finding new specialists for the centers. They will also look at the need for more frequent departures.

How many times have you met with private coach operators this year? They have been rather worried about free public transport taking away their business.

The Road Administration has held meetings as they have helped public transport centers take over contracts. Contracts are very long in public transport.

Commercial lines have been closed in the past. Because of lower demand and long before anyone started talking about free transport. Going forward, people would get the impression life is impossible without a personal vehicle and the number of coach passengers would continue to dwindle. It is not the stick, it’s a carrot. It could motivate people do decide against buying a car by offering a viable alternative in the coach.

Is the rest of the government still behind the project?

The item is on the government’s agenda, while the budget reflects corresponding calculations.

Is selling a part of EVR Cargo still on the agenda? The company’s railcar deal with Russia has been described as extremely risky.

The previous months have brought good news as concerns EVR Cargo. While the company will not turn a profit for the entire year, the past few months have been better.

It is important to note that EVR Cargo is not doing business with companies subject to sanctions. EVR Cargo is also looking for a financial investor for its subsidiary to additionally manage possible risks.

Where will that investor come from – Russia, Europe, somewhere else?

Talks are underway with different investors.

Where are we with the privatization of Estonian Roads (Eesti Teed)?

Estonian Roads was supposed to end intercompany transactions first thing this year because you cannot put such a company up for sale. Right now, we have agreed that we will react to good offers.

You talked about bringing cargo ships back under the Estonian flag in an interview to Postimees a year ago. What has become of that plan?

Estonia has operators who own ships that can take on over 500 tons of cargo, while none of them sails under the Estonian flag. They have found better flag countries. We are willing to offer a special tax scheme for such ships.

On the other hand, we are not just competing in terms of taxes. One must also have outstanding digital flag services. The maritime administration is working hard on that. The service should enter into legal force from January 1, 2019.

What will happen after the 2019 Riigikogu elections? Will the Center Party continue as a member of the government?

We are working toward maintaining the current situation. To quote Siim Kallas: “If the elections took place tomorrow, the Center Party would win.” Kallas told Toomas Sildam that in an ERR interview.

The Reform Party has gone down the path of a long campaign.

What about your position after the 2019 elections? Has the party considered you for prime minister?

For 2019? Of course not. Support for Jüri Ratas is so strong, and he is so good at bringing the party together; no one has a better prime ministerial candidate. If two years ago the party was at odds with itself, and now it’s a united team… there is no question. We will meet the election under Ratas.

Will I have a ministerial position? After negotiations a year ago, I know that it is not sensible to get too attached to any position as the ministerial portfolios are the last to be distributed, and it might prove too costly for chairmen to hold on to demands.

I’m prepared to contribute to the government, while I also do not underestimate the role of the parliament; it also needs strong politicians.

Resigning at the right time can be a shrewd political move. Would it not have been more sensible to take political responsibility and resign in light of upcoming elections?

I believe it is right to take political responsibility for something you’ve done. And I do not rule out having to do that someday. However, I would first have to do something for which one needs to take responsibility.

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