Estonia’s new foreign trade and IT minister Kert Kingo (51) is in the middle of a legal dispute with the Tax and Customs Board (MTA) after contesting a disciplinary penalty and a reduction in pay. The Conservative People’s Party (EKRE) minister describes what happened over at the MTA as workplace persecution and is convinced she has done nothing wrong.
Procedural documents at Postimees’ disposal reveal that events that culminated in court started in late 2015 when the chief lawyer of the special proceedings service of the board’s income department assigned Kingo the case of OÜ Parim Ehitaja. The tax board had reason to believe the company had failed to pay taxes on salaries. It was a standard case the kind of which MTA investigators usually handle four or five at a time.
However, the investigation culminated in a major row. Disciplinary proceedings were brought against Kingo that resulted in a 20-percent reduction in salary for a period of four months in January of 2017.
Case shelved for four months
Head of the special proceedings department and the chief lawyer accused Kingo of insufficient diligence in investigating the case as proceedings ground to a halt for four months. As a result, the period during which a board member could have been held accountable expired. The board eventually deemed the case hopeless.
MTA accuses Kingo of only launching proceedings in March of 2016 in a situation where she had been given the case materials in December of 2015. Kingo disagrees and says she made inquiries regarding a possible preliminary seizure. Because she found the company had no assets, she concentrated on more urgent cases and returned to proceedings in March of 2016.
Another matter of contention was which section of the taxation act to apply. Kingo’s bosses found that the company’s only board member should be charged with gross negligence, while the future minister disagreed and said the CEO had created arrears knowingly and the matter falls under a different section of the law.
If tax arrears arising from negligence carry a three-year limitation period, the period during which a person can be prosecuted for conscious tax evasion is five years. This means that Kingo felt she had another two years to go after the board member.
The brass accused Kingo of treating the case as tax evasion to hide the fact she had missed the limitation period. Kert Kingo maintains the case cannot be one of negligence as OÜ Parim Ehitaja only had a single board member. If a board is made up of several people, it is possible for one to miss something others have done. But if a single person is responsible, tax arrears can only follow conscious action, Kingo finds.
The minister also finds that the MTA went beyond the scope of her alleged violation as the disciplinary case summary concentrates on a description of her person that is of no relevance. Disciplinary proceedings materials include a seven-page characterization of Kingo by the chief lawyer of the special proceedings service.
The text is incendiary. The chief lawyer writes that communication with Kingo became strained in early 2016. She is described as openly criticizing the work of managers and colleagues, spreading gossip, talking about colleagues behind their backs and trying to undermine executives. The seven pages describe a number of incidents tied to Kingo.
In one example, the head of the service talked about salary based on performance during a video conference, while Kingo allegedly heard they were talking about determining salary based on employees’ age. The document suggests Kingo continued to rail against ageism in determining salary six months after the conference in question.
“Her negative disposition toward certain colleagues is obvious; she regards herself as better than any other lawyer, is reluctant to attend agency events and consciously criticizes executives in front of colleagues,” the report reads.
Kert Kingo told Postimees that qualities and actions she is accused of in the report are either made up or maliciously distorted, and the way she was treated constituted blatant workplace persecution. She regards as peculiar the service chief’s negative opinion of her character because Kingo worked in Tartu, while the service chief worked in Tallinn, and the two had virtually no contact.
The negative review is all the stranger in Kingo’s opinion since she was recognized at the board’s “Employee of the Year” and “Colleague of the Year” competitions in 2015 and 2016 respectively.
Kingo contested her disciplinary penalty in court. Tartu Administrative Court terminated proceedings for a brief period in March of 2017 after the MTA revoked its order due to inexpediency. Head of communications at MTA Rainer Laurits explained that the board took back the directive due to formal inaccuracies and issued a new one.
Kingo also sued the new directive and is demanding its revocation. The minister has lost in the first and second court instances, with the Supreme Court set to rule on June 6.
Laurits said the MTA is prepared to comment on the dispute once the court’s decision enters into force as the state agency believes it improper to comment on ongoing legal proceedings.