European Commission looking at TalTech

Tallinn University of Technology.

PHOTO: Peeter Langovits

The Tallinn University of Technology (TalTech) sent out a press release on Friday evening, saying that it has closed its investigation into the Nurkse scandal. The statement left out quite a few important details.

First of all, the university council was told on Friday that TalTech is willing to voluntarily return €17,000 in funding for the scandalous OpenGovIntelligence (OGI) project.

This means the university at least partially admits breaking funding rules. While it is only a fifth of the sum Postimees has claimed TalTech unfoundedly paid its researchers, the university made no mention of a possible return of sums in its press release.

“We are discussing the matter with the European Commission, while we cannot comment on ongoing proceedings in detail,” TalTech spokesperson Epp Joala said when asked for an explanation.

Postimees’ claims are based on information from respected members of the university council and senate who must remain anonymous.

Because the university refuses comments, it is unclear how it arrived at the sum of €17,000. However, a substantial part of it could concern foreign lecturers Erik Reinert and Carlota Perez. They are researchers whose participation in the project TalTech’s investigative committee found the most difficult to demonstrate. Reinert and Perez were paid a total of nearly €14,000 from project funds.

Reinert told Postimees in August that he is not associated with the project and seemed to not know anything about OGI. Perez told the investigative committee that she contributed nothing to the project. The committee wrote in its final report that it was likely possible to pay the professors based on so-called indirect expenses.

Extensive control

The second important piece of news that TalTech has so far kept to itself is that the European Commission is looking at every single one of the university’s projects that rely on European funding after the Nurkse scandal.

Rector Jaak Aaviksoo ordered all faculties to go over project reports for all Horizon 2020 projects back in September. The Commission has now notified the university of a control action, demanding to see these very reports.

“It has turned out that the European Commission requires us to go over all project expenses and file corresponding reports,” a member of the university’s senate said. The information is confirmed by several other credible sources.

The reason why this kind of information needs to be extracted from other sources lies in TalTech’s communication of the past months or rather lack thereof. Rector Aaviksoo, Vice Rector Renno Veinthal and the university’s press service all but refuse comments.

“Nothing of the sort has taken place,” TalTech spokesperson Krõõt Nõgene says when asked whether the Commission has launched an audit into the OGI project. Press representative Joala later said that the university does not have a single ongoing audit regarding Horizon 2020 projects.

At the same time, Postimees is told straight from the European Commission’s Research Executive Agency (REA) that the OGI project is presently being investigated. It is possible that the university’s spokespeople simply do not refer to EC investigations as audits.

Attack on the whistleblower

The third interesting detail from the Friday TalTech council meeting saw Aaviksoo ask the council to condemn the whistleblower. The council was reluctant, finding that such a move would not be proper. Once more, the fact is confirmed by an anonymous council member, not the university’s press service.

Spokesperson for the council, chairman Gunnar Okk refused to shed light on Aaviksoo’s request.

“I will only comment on what we decided, not what we discussed,” he said.

Okk confirmed that Aaviksoo appeared in front of the council and his statement did concern the person who brought fraud to light. “The council did not take a stand concerning the whistleblower,” the chairman emphasized.

The lack of a mandate from the council did not stop Aaviksoo from voicing his personal displeasure in the Friday press statement.

The rector claimed whistleblower Keegan McBride, a doctoral student of the university, did not cooperate with the TalTech investigative committee that allegedly clashes with the loyalty clause in his contract. “I am deeply disappointed on a personal level in that he completely refused to cooperate with the investigation that started with a seemingly sincere report,” the rector wrote.

Let us recall that Aaviksoo was also embroiled in the scandal due to recordings made public by McBride. The latter revealed that the rector knew of the student’s claims in March but did not launch an audit of the OGI project.

Transparency International Estonia, made up of legal experts, condemns the rector’s attack against the whistleblower. “The message TalTech seems to be sending is that one should keep quiet on potential fraud if one is not a clairvoyant,” said the nonprofit’s manager Carina Paju. “It is not the task of the whistleblower to know for a fact whether it was a case of fraud or violation of work rules,” she explained.

The doctoral student was criticized for not releasing to the committee a recording of his conversation with head of the Ragnar Nurkse institute Erkki Karo. Members of the investigative committee can be heard telling McBride the Karo recording is not needed on a recording of the whistleblower’s interview (requested by the committee).

Paju said that the whistleblower’s cooperation with the investigative committee should not serve as grounds for criticizing his actions.