Ratas trying to avoid taking responsibility

Chairman of the Center Party, Prime Minister Jüri Ratas.
Chairman of the Center Party, Prime Minister Jüri Ratas. Photo: Sander Ilvest

Chairman of the Center Party, Prime Minister Jüri Ratas answered Postimees’ questions concerning the dismantling of the Political Parties Financing Surveillance Committee (ERJK) after giving the Riigikogu an overview of Estonia’s security policy goals and on his way to his next meeting.

A bill introduced by the coalition Center Party, Isamaa and Conservative People’s Party would move party finances monitoring to the National Audit Office that would effectively put the public sector watchdog in charge of keeping tabs also on private funds. While the move would alter the nature of the audit office and, according to Chancellor of Justice Ülle Madise, it should be made sure the agency has sufficient powers, Ratas perceives no obstacles.

“Of course, it needs to be given additional powers,” the PM said, adding that putting the audit office in charge of just one part of financing would be unthinkable.

The Center Party has had the most high-stakes disputes with the committee, while Ratas said he has no criticism for the ERJK. “There does not have to be specific qualms always, while things can always be improved.”

Because the committee’s biggest dispute concerns the Center Party that the ERJK wants to return over €1 million in what it perceives as illicit donations, the Riigikogu opposition has suggested the prime minister’s party is looking to get rid of the claim and pointed out that such a move paves the way for corruption. “Such a step needs to be aimed at containing corruption, not adding to it. The goal here needs to be stronger supervision,” Ratas parried.

The PM said that the period in which precepts could be issued for misuse of funds, set at three years in the current draft, is still open for discussion. “It could be something else, longer.”

Why do you think it’s bad when members of parties monitor other parties’ finances, such as the ERJK works today?

I believe it would be good to elevate party finances monitoring to a new level, and the National Audit Office is a trustworthy, independent, autonomous and highly experienced agency. Let us also not forget it has sufficient resources. Therefore, I believe it will bring new quality. Changes do not always mean one thing was bad and the other is good. I’m not saying the ERJK has been unsuccessful in its work. On the contrary, I believe this work needs to be made even more effective.

Then why dismantle the system instead of improving it?

I have given you my answer and will stick with it.

Is it truly the most important issue for Estonia, fresh out of the emergency situation?

Things discussed by the Riigikogu are not sorted by priority.

And yet, it was the first bill introduced by the coalition parties after the emergency situation ended.

It was introduced by the Riigikogu, not the government.

You are chairman of the Center Party, member of the coalition council.

Do you really believe the Riigikogu cannot act without the head of the coalition council – it would be undemocratic. The Riigikogu has been created to introduce, process and pass legislation. I believe there is enough time for processing this bill, hearing the National Audit Office’s proposals and improvement.

Does it not seem peculiar to you that the audit office was not involved in drafting the bill?

Excuse me, but the task of legislator falls to the Riigikogu, while I’m sure the audit office will get the chance to contribute.

What about the auditor general being less than thrilled about the prospect?

The legal side of things will be decided by the Riigikogu. That said, I believe working with the audit office is important when processing this bill.

Tarand: Disbanding ERJK purely Center’s initiative

The bill to eliminate the Political Parties Financing Surveillance Committee (ERJK) has been put together with the prime minister’s knowledge if not by his order,” deputy head of the committee Kaarel Tarand finds. Had the bill been passed sooner, Center would have escaped a million-euro dispute.

Is it purely incidental that the committee asked Center about the origin of a donation of €50,000 from a private individual (Jana-Helen Juhaste) right before the bill was introduced?

I see no calendar connections here. No one knows anything about this major sponsor and we suspected the individual did not have the kind of income that would have allowed them to donate such sums. A donation of €50,000 is a considerable amount of money. We had to ask the party whether they verified the origin of the money as parties are obligated to only accept legal funds.

Where did this bill originate?

It is purely the Center Party’s initiative that has its coalition partners over a barrel. It has been presented as a coalition bill, while it did not start out as one. Metadata of the file suggests the author is long-time Centrist Julianna Jurtšenko.

How high up could it have started?

No party prepares political matters without the chairman’s order or at least knowledge. I would ask Jüri Ratas why he had this bill prepared.

What could have been the motive?

Luckily, not all parties are equally misguided in their financial conduct. The Center Party has proved the most error-prone and quickest to seek litigation. Four years ago, Jüri Ratas promised to change the party and make everything above board. Unfortunately, looking at things from the financial supervision side, we can detect no penance. The party’s recent quarterly report is problematic, things are not spick and span.

Which ongoing proceedings could have motivated Center to plot this course?

One long-standing process is illegal party financing through OÜ Midfield and [Center’s former campaign chief] Paavo Pettai. The case should reach the court in autumn.

Could the passing of this bill affect the process?

As far as I understand, a possible amendment should not affect this particular matter. It might provide new stalling tactics in court and buy the party time for coming up with the money. However, the Riigikogu first needs to pass the bill. Were I a gambling man, I would bet against the bill passing any time soon as there are too many questions. It has not been sufficiently explained to the public why a system that has functioned successfully for nine years is being dismantled.

The bill includes a proposal for a control action deadline of three years from the time of the violation. Had such a limitation period been in effect before, would we not have seen Center’s million-euro case?

Yes, it is quite likely as the full chain of events goes back to 2009.