Center looking to cushion Reps’ blow

Mailis Reps. PHOTO: Sander Ilvest

The next chapter in former Education Minister Mailis Reps’ (Center) official benefits scandal has seen more than a few people ask whether Reps should leave behind not only the position of Center’s Riigikogu group head but politics altogether.

The recent episode was unveiled by daily Õhtuleht on Sunday when it wrote that Reps had the Ministry of Education and Research pay for her 45th birthday dinner at a fancy restaurant in January of 2020. The bill was in four figures.

Heads of the Center Party on Monday met to discuss the fate of Reps, who headed Center’s coalition talks delegation earlier in the year, while no rapid solution seems to be on the horizon.

Sources from the party said that it is no longer a matter of whether Reps will pass the baton in the Riigikogu but how to do it without her appearing to own up to everything. “What you say there could put you on the spot,” a source said.

Reps remains tight-lipped

Some political competitors are calling for no mercy, while others remain more cautious due to political realities.

“Things that need investigating need to be investigated by the police and the prosecution,” said Erkki Keldo, secretary general of Center’s coalition partner the Reform Party. “Any additional questions the media or public might have need to be thoroughly answered by Center and Mailis Reps.”

Reps has opted for a tactic of media silence. Erkki Keldo said that talking to the media should be considered good practice. He did not say whether he believes Reps should stay in politics, remarking only that it is up to the voter to decide.

Mart Helme (Conservative People’s Party) said that the public should wait for the investigation’s conclusions. “I have enough practical experience to speak against crucifying people based on articles in the media.” Helme added, however, that he would not be surprised to learn the accusations have merit.

Former Prosecutor General Lavly Perling (Isamaa) said that the incidents reflect Reps’ values and those of her party, considering her high position in Center.

“Seen together with all previous revelations, and provided they are all true, it seems peculiar to debate whether she will continue as faction head or a simple MP. I believe the topic should be whether she can ever return to politics. Things are that simple for me when it comes to corruption,” Perling said, adding that the presumption of innocence must be maintained.

“Corruption on this level is nothing less than robbing the state, and provided something like that has happened, such people should not have a place in politics. At least not for a long time.”

As a former top executive, Perling cannot fathom how people responsible for funds and leadership at the ministry let something like that slip through accounting.

“The ministry has secretaries general, people responsible for accounting etc. Considering all the levels of coordination involved, one cannot help but wonder how something like that was possible.”

Behavior tolerated by voters

Isamaa leader Helir-Valdor Seeder, who worked with Reps in the previous coalition, said that she comes off a someone who has been mixing up her personal wallet and state funds for some time.

Seeder admits that such incidents that add up for a lifestyle or political style are unacceptable. “However, the decision [of whether to leave politics] needs to be made by Reps and her voters. Unfortunately, as we have seen in the past, voters tend to tolerate such behavior in the big picture. Such scandals involving Center politicians have been myriad. But it has not affected the party’s popularity as a whole.

“It is unbelievable,” said Reps’ former Center party mate Raimond Kaljulaid (SDE). “I’m sure most adults wouldn’t even consider inviting their friends for a birthday celebration and then sending the bill to their employer.”

“I can only imagine someone trying something of the sort in the private sector – for example, a bank executive inviting their coworkers for a party and then asking the bank to pay for it. Something like that would not fly,” Kaljulaid said, adding that such conduct mars not only the Center Party but all of Estonian politics.

He believes such a politician would have been told to find a new line of work in most European countries.

“They can come back should it turn out everything was in order. Whereas the investigation reaching a different conclusion would mean finding something else to do in life.”