Public pressure forces Center to take action

Chairman of the Center Party, Prime Minister Jüri Ratas.

PHOTO: Sander Ilvest

If a week ago, the ruling Center Party was still defending its unlikely major donor, events of the weekend led to an about-turn. The party confirmed that the €50,000 donation from little-known Tartu entrepreneur Jana-Helen Juhaste made toward the beginning of the year has been returned. “I decided we would return the donation and not accept it,” Center Party chairman, PM Jüri Ratas emphasized on Monday.

Ratas told the Riigikogu during Question Time last Wednesday that he believes the version according to which Juhaste’s donation is the result of a very personal story. Moreover, when it turned out the Political Parties Financing Surveillance Committee (ERJK) had turned to the prosecution over Juhaste’s income being insufficient to facilitate the donation in May, Center sent out a press release where the businesswoman confirmed the donation was made from personal funds to support the party’s worldview.

Ratas said on Monday that it remained unclear for the party who the money was meant for inside the family and what was its purpose. “A lot of questions have cropped up to which there are no answers,” Ratas admitted. However, these questions only cropped up when the donation was shown to be suspicious in the media. Ratas admitted that his decision to return the money to Juhaste was affected by an Eesti Ekspress article from June 6 that reveals the money could be from Juhaste’s ex-partner Martin Künnap.

Almost six months of silence

Center received the donation on January 22. No serious questions apparently cropped up at the time as the party kept the donation for almost half a year. “I have said all along that the party will return the money should there remain unanswered questions. I believe the Center Party has done the ethical thing here and returned the donation,” the PM explained.

Ratas added that considering the party’s less than stellar past, there are heightened expectations for financial affairs to be transparent. The coalition has also entered into Riigikogu proceedings a bill that seeks to abolish the ERJK that it claims would make party finances even more transparent and control more effective.

Would the party have been as diligent investigating the origin of the money had the donation and questionable aspects not come to light? “It is clear that the origin of the money always needs to be checked. Was it done quickly enough? It could certainly have been done sooner,” the PM said in summary.

The board of the Center Party discussed how to render in-house checks more effective last week, while Ratas says parties’ hands are often tied as they can only ask a person why they donated and whether the money’s theirs and simply have to take people’s word for it. Asked whether Ratas knows the businessman named by weekly Eesti Ekspress, the PM said: “I was not in touch. I do not know the name.”

The prosecution is set to analyze the case materials and decide whether to launch criminal proceedings by June 12. The Political Parties Act classifies as illegal physical person donations made from the assets of a third person.

Partners not quick to judge

“The Center Party will have to get its own house in order. We will not be adopting a stance here,” Mart Helme, chairman of the Conservative People’s Party (EKRE) and Center’s coalition partner, said. “While their explanations seem to make sense, we cannot say whether they can be considered exhaustive or what else might come of it. We are not an investigative organ,” Helme said.

Isamaa chairman Helir-Valdor Seeder said the party trusts the prosecution’s judgment and to get to the bottom of the matter should it deem an investigation necessary. “We have organizations with the necessary capacity and information. I have no more information than what can be gleamed from the media. It would not be right to draw conclusions and pass judgment based on that,” Seeder said, effectively refusing to comment on Center’s conduct. The party chairman emphasized, however, that party financing needs to be honest and transparent.