Mart Järvik (EKRE) has lied to the public and gone beyond his commission. Those are the two main conclusions of State Secretary Taimar Peterkop’s investigation into scandals revolving around Estonia’s rural affairs minister. Prime Minister Jüri Ratas has promised to decide what will happen by the start of next week.
The report of the committee under Peterkop is public and clearly confirms that Järvik went beyond his commission in meddling in the work of the Veterinary and Food Board (VTA) and the Agricultural Registers and Information Board (PRIA).
The report shows how Järvik’s adviser Maido Pajo bombarded the VTA with letters, asking specific questions about supervision proceedings brought against fish processor M.V.Wool at the heart of the listeria scandal. For example, Pajo asked the director of the agency to forward all documentation regarding sales and trading bans for M.V.Wool to the ministry. When he did not receive a reply, Pajo asked for the reason, writing that the minister has the right to exercise supervisory control over agencies in its administrative area.
Because the VTA falls under the jurisdiction of the rural affairs ministry and because Järvik is the minister, the question of why he shouldn’t have access to everything at VTA might be raised. However, even a minister’s powers have limits, also in their area of responsibility.
The report explains that while a minister is expected to collect information, it must come primarily from ministry officials. VTA is a supervisory agency and must, therefore, be completely independent. “This cannot be jeopardized in any way. That is why asking for detailed information on ongoing proceedings is generally inadmissible,” the report reads.
State Secretary Taimar Peterkop said that the listeria case is unique in Estonia and constitutes a very serious matter – companies could go under, people’s lives are at risk. “We pointed out the applicable guidelines. A watchdog is independent in its actions and a minister is not allowed to interfere in such a detailed manner,” he added.
The report’s conclusions aren’t as clear-cut when it comes to allegations of the minister having lied , while it does confirm that Järvik misled the public when he said he first learned of the listeria outbreak at M.V.Wool in August and as concerns the extent to which he was up to speed on developments.
Järvik told public broadcaster ERR in an interview on October 24 that he was told of listeria at the plant in August and had only vaguely heard something about the problem from the media before. He claimed that the questions he sent to the VTA in July were based on reports from the media, not agencies. The report found this to be inaccurate.
“An overview of how information moved suggests Järvik learned of the listeria problem at M.V.Wool on June 12 at the latest,” the report reads, confirming what the press has previously reported. “Järvik, Arumäe and Pajo have been actively involved with the subject matter from June 14,” the committee’s report concludes.
What is more, the report finds that Mart Järvik and Maido Pajo have been active and studied the details of actions by the VTA which fact clashes with Järvik having told the press he had little or no information regarding the outbreak.
The report also confirms Järvik’s former adviser Urmas Arumäe’s conflict of interest. He simultaneously served as a legal adviser to the minister in whose administrative area lies the Agricultural Registers and Information Board (PRIA) and clients who were in the middle of a legal dispute with the latter. A letter sent by Arumäe to declare he is no longer representing legal persons who have a dispute with PRIA because he has become adviser to the minister was cleverly phrased as the lawyer said nothing about physical persons who were also party to the same dispute. In truth, Arumäe also continued to represent legal persons after promising to withdraw.
That said, authors of the report are unclear on why Järvik refused to give PRIA authorization in the criminal case of Arumäe’s clients. “The materials at our disposal did not allow the committee to conclude whether Järvik withheld authorization from PRIA in the interests of Urmas Arumäe’s clients,” the document reads.
The conclusions drawn from the report by members of the government and especially PM Jüri Ratas will become clear next week. Ratas told Postimees that he will decide whether Järvik can continue as minister as soon as possible, in the coming days, after reading the report and consulting with coalition partners.
New week to bring clarity
Isamaa leader Helir-Valdor Seeder, who was in Croatia for the European People’s Party congress yesterday, did not rush to draw conclusions before seeing the report. “I want to read the report in full, draw my own conclusions and discuss them with members of the party,” he said. Seeder added that he hopes there will be clarity in this matter by Monday. “I trust the report as it is not a political document and has – I believe – been assembled based on facts, making it possible to draw factual conclusions of what has taken place,” he said. When the scandal of Arumäe’s potential conflict of interest broke in early November, Seeder said that Järvik must resign if allegations are proven true. “What I said before the report stands,” Seeder assured.
The question is whether Mart Järvik, who maintains he has done nothing wrong, is willing to resign and whether EKRE will remove him should he refuse. While head of the party Mart Helme had been saying EKRE would not be recalling Järvik before, his stance had softened to the party having considered various options yesterday. “The coalition partners will discuss these conclusions together.”
Postimees did not manage to get a comment from Minister of Rural Affairs Mart Järvik yesterday.