TalTech investigation results clash with facts

The investigative committee of the Tallinn University of Technology (TalTech) presented an interim report yesterday.
The investigative committee of the Tallinn University of Technology (TalTech) presented an interim report yesterday. Photo: Erik Prozes

The investigative committee of the Tallinn University of Technology (TalTech) presented an interim report yesterday of its in-house audit to analyze alleged misuse of European funds at the university’s Ragnar Nurkse Department of Innovation and Governance revealed in a Postimees article. The university found that while rules were broken, misconduct only concerned drawing up work schedules.

Postimees compares the audit’s claims to evidence that sparked the initial scandal.

Fictitiously paid scientists a secret “team B”

Member of the investigative committee professor Jaan Raik said at TalTech’s press conference yesterday that six research fellows who Postimees claims were paid for fictitious work done on the OpenGovIntelligence (OGI) project for the European Commission did work on it. Even though some of them told Postimees they have had no ties to the project.

Raik claims the six were the authors of the project’s conceptual part so to speak. However, project lead Robert Krimmer never mentioned the group to the final authors of the OGI project over three years. “We have a number of employees who have written joint papers, also with the core group of authors and mentored the latter. And then there are people who have worked independently from the core group,” Raik said, adding that he cannot elaborate in terms of evidence.

In truth, the conceptual part of the OGI project was written by the same people who later wrote the practical section. “I have been involved with OGI from the first, and we also did the conceptual part,” a member of the core team of authors who wished to remain anonymous said.

Raik’s claims also clash with other evidence. OGI project results were sent to Europe exclusively through the core team of authors. Three people say that they have seen no signs of an “OGI team B” having ever existed or contributed in any way.

While contributions of a few dozen hours might have gone overlooked, people in question were paid for over 5,000 work hours for a total of tens of thousands of euros. Tutoring doctoral students or writing papers in the same field cannot be counted as work done on the project according to Horizon 2020 rules.

Secondly, whistleblower Keegan McBride directed the attention of Krimmer to fraudulent salaries and was told it was a “flexible approach that would not work if things were done by the book.” The project lead never thought to tell McBride he was wrong.

Krimmer participated in a Skype conversation involving the entire team on how to report to the European Commission salaries paid to Carlota Perez and Wolfgang Drechsler neither of whom worked on the project to the best of Postimees’ knowledge. Krimmer never mentioned a team B or suggested Perez and Drechsler worked on OGI.

Head of the Ragnar Nurkse institute Erkki Karo also makes no attempt to refute scheming on a recording. “It is fraud!” McBride told Karo in March regarding professors’ fictitious participation in the project.

“I understand. It is in a sense,” Karo replies on the recording. “The reason we do this regarding European projects is collecting reserves. I know it doesn’t make it right. But if we didn’t, you wouldn’t have a job.”

Not a word to suggest the student had it wrong. Not a word on the actual contribution of others McBride was allegedly unaware of.

Despite repeated requests for interviews, Karo, Krimmer and Drechsler have refused to talk to Postimees. Karo issued a press release in the institute’s name yesterday where he neither confirms nor denies Postimees’ claim the OGI project was used to pay researchers who were not associated with it.

Missing work schedules

The committee claimed at the press conference that the biggest procedural mistake was the execution of work schedules.

While the schedules exist, they lack signatures. “We have work schedule forms, but in order for a form to become an official document, the people involved need to sign it,” the university’s prorector Renno Veinthal explained. This makes the university’s claim legally watertight.

The lack of signed work schedules means that European funding rules have been broken and TalTech will likely have to return the money.

At the same time, the missing signatures could be enough to wash the university clean of having committed a crime. Because an unsigned work schedule is not a document, it could not have been falsified.

Postimees has at its disposal email correspondence between three members of the core group of authors and Robert Krimmer (other alleged participants were not involved for some reason) that served as the base for the work schedule with every contributing author’s work hours.

A missing signature does nothing to alter the fact that scientists were paid (with pay slips serving as proof) based on the work allocation in the “unofficial” document. The schedule was also used to calculate the total work done on the project which information was forwarder to the European Commission as official.

No false data sent to Europe

“The audit committee did not find proof of a crime having been committed nor that inaccurate data was presented to the European Commission,” TalTech’s press release reads.

The OGI core group was only supposed to present general expenses to Europe but added the claim that the project involved ten of the institute’s employees. That figure was found after the fact from how many people were paid using project funds. If either the European Commission or the Estonian prosecution find the actual contribution of employees did not match declared work hours, false data was in fact presented to the Commission.

“Regarding the projects in our sample, the existence of work schedules was verified – they were there, and nothing came of it,” Prorector Renno Veinthal said in terms of why Rector Jaak Aaviksoo’s audit was found to be enough.

Leaving aside the fact that the university never audited the project a tip it received suggested was corrupt, other projects were audited in a way that makes it impossible to uncover participatory fraud of employees. The truth is that no one knows whether the people paid for the projects really worked on them.