Examiner: everyone accepted bribes

Endised maanteeameti Tallinna Mustamäe büroo eksamineerijad, kes võtsid korduvalt altkäemaksu. Jaak Tammistu (vasakul), Peeter Prems valge kampsuniga.

PHOTO: Liis Treimann

Statements given to the police suggest that bribery cases in the Road Administration that ended up in court and were covered by the media were likely just the tip of the iceberg: criminal schemes went on for around a decade and bank accounts of examiners saw hundreds of thousands of euros in suspicious cash deposits.

“I’m absolutely convinced that every single road administration examiner takes bribes in exchange for the student passing their driving test. It is a practice developed over years,” former employee Jaak Tammistu told detectives a few years ago.

Tammistu was a hardliner whose exam was notoriously difficult to pass. But he became noticeably more agreeable once you handed him €160-200. He admitted to the police he had spent ten years of his 15-year career accepting bribes and started before Estonia switched to the euro. “I realized I had become hooked on bribes,” he said.

We can only guess at how many future traffic idiots passed through Tammistu’s exam vehicle in those ten years. The corrupt house of cards started coming down around five years ago in the parking lot of the administration’s office on Mäepealse street in Tallinn’s Mustamäe district.

Examiner Mait had just finished giving a driving test which the student had passed. He was greeted by a man he did not know when he stepped out of his vehicle. The stranger approached Mait, shook his hand, gave him a matchbox, nodded and left.

A large sum of suspicious money

Mait was baffled. He waited until the end of the workday, went to the office bathroom and opened the matchbox. It revealed four 50-euro bills.

It is likely driving instructor Nikolai Katõšev was not up to speed on the fact Mait was one of only few honest examiners working at the Mustamäe bureau. Mait notified his superiors of the incident that night and they took the matter to the police.

The matchbox led to the discovery of a massive scheme. Detectives started keeping an eye on the parking lot. It was clear after a few months that several driving instructors were meeting with road administration examiners suspiciously often. Instructors and examiners also frequently exchanged phone calls.

Bank accounts of examiners showed a suspicious amount of cash deposits over the years. One examiner had deposited €111,000 inside five years while another had deposited €42,000 in just one year.

The standard bribe for passing the exam was €150-200. If all of the money that landed on the examiner’s bank account was criminal, it would suggest a total of around 1,000 incidents. Unfortunately, it is impossible to determine the exact number of bribes: many potential crimes have expired or cannot be proved anymore.

The investigation was not limited to two suspects. “Information available to the police’s corruption crimes bureau suggests most Tallinn examiners accept bribes,” the North District Prosecution soon wrote to the court, seeking a surveillance permit.

The police started busting officials one after the other. There were around 30 suspects, including those who offered, took and mediated bribes.

Statements of those involved suggested bribes were offered by instructors of such driving schools as Illani, Sky, Stalker and Aus (out of business today). The success rate of students of driving school Stalker has fallen by 20 percent since crimes came to light.

Instructor explains the scheme

Anatoli Kirienko worked as an instructor at Stalker and had been mediating bribes between students and examiners for years. Kirienko became a key witness in the case.

He first got acquainted with two examiners of the road administration’s Saue bureau who started “helping” his students. Neither official was convicted.

It was only later Kirienko started talking to employees of the Tallinn office. The scheme that went on for years saw the student hand Kirienko €320 (previously exactly 5,000 Estonian kroons) of which the instructor gave €160 to the examiner. The latter gave the examinee a simple route and turned a blind eye to minor mistakes.

Instructors usually engaged examiners by saying: “I need help.” Everyone knew what that meant. Before that, the expression “plan B” was used to refer to such situations.

Students could still fail the exam after bribing the instructor if they made serious mistakes. This had nothing to do with the criminals’ moral fiber but the fact every exam was recorded with an onboard camera and attempts to deny obvious mistakes would have been suspicious.

Around 50 corrupt officials

The prosecution preferred cutting deals as bribery cases tend to be extensive. Disputes often take years and trying all cases in general procedure would have required huge amounts of time and money.

The last four people were handed convictions as recently as October 18 this year. A lengthy trial brought them fines ranging from €2,000 to €4,500. An even more severe punishment were their legal costs that amounted to €16,400 in one defendant’s case.

The road administration’s house was generally out of order a few years ago. If the Tallinn case revolved around 30 suspects, another investigation made suspects of 16 instructors in East Viru County.

An instructor from Narva was acquitted thanks to a technicality in summer: surveillance records were not properly filed and had to be thrown out as evidence. Nine people seeking a driver’s license were said to be involved in illegal conduct in Narva.

An extensive driving theory test scheme was also uncovered at the road administration’s Narva bureau in 2013 that led to the conviction of chief specialist at the time Oleg Latt and bureau chief Jaanus Tammets. Haapsalu instructor Rain Josmann, who helped at least a few dozen people get their license for a bribe, was convicted in 2014.

Corruption at the administration was not limited to driver’s licenses. A few dozen technical inspectors of vehicles have also been caught over just a few years. Some helped faulty cars get back on the road for nothing more than a six-pack of beer.

The Road Administration believes that it has sorted out the problem and that corruption cannot return on this scale. While there have been a few attempts to bribe examiners in recent years, the agency says these have been brought to the attention of the police.

Neither the administration nor the prosecution dare speculate as to how many drivers have gotten their license using bribes. 11 such cases have been proved in Tallinn, in addition to the incidents in Narva and Haapsalu.

The administration promised to review the matter when asked about it by the reporter.

Director: thanks for reminding us!

Director General of the Road Administration Priit Sauk took office at a very difficult time three years ago, a mere month before the corruption scandals came to light.

His first task was cleaning house. The worst aspect was that once corrupt officials had been kicked out of the Tallinn bureau, there was no one left to carry out driving tests. Queues exploded, and citizens of Tallinn had to take their tests all over the country.

Director Priit Sauk, you said years ago that the licenses of people who got them through bribes will be revoked. Why have you not done so?

To be honest, this is the first time I’m hearing of these investigations having been settled. It would be nice if authorities would also notify us of the outcome. Perhaps we should communicate more.

Thank you for reminding me. I will ask my people to remember as well. It is clear that people who got their driver’s license illegally should not be driving.

Those scandals erupted practically when you took office. How did it make you feel when you first realized things were so bad?

It was a very bad surprise, and my reaction was very forceful. We replaced our middle managers virtually on the same day. It seems attitudes have changed over time. It seems that if accepting bribes was tolerated before, the entire organization has moved on now.

Did middle managers turn a blind eye?

I don’t know for a fact. Rather they had to go because of their attitude. Their take on the matter was: “it happens”. And they had remained in office with that attitude for years if not decades.

How likely do you believe the assumption that there are far more people with illegal licenses out there than those few dozen the investigations concerned?

I cannot say anything in terms of how many there are exactly. But there were proven cases before these recent scandals.