RIGA - Ventspils Mayor Aivars Lembergs filed a suit in local courts against the prosecutor's office last week in an effort to shore up his reputation and prevent investigators from obtaining information on Swiss-based companies with alleged connections to the mayor.
Lembergs filed suit in a Riga district court against the General Prosecutor's Office, seeking the recall of a legal assistance letter sent to Switzerland last year. He called the letter libelous and claimed it damaged his dignity and honor.
The suit was just the latest move by Lembergs, who rules virtually unopposed over the Latvian port city, to slow the ongoing investigation into his personal fortune and myriad business interests, many of which are covered by a cloak of nontransparency.
Other tactics have included a recent deluge of advertisements paid for by the City Council of Ventspils in newspapers throughout the country. (The Baltic Times ran the ad in its Oct. 14 - 20 issue.) The ads defend Lembergs and attack the state prosecutor.
"I would want the Prosecutor General's Office to admit that all the rest of the things it states do not comply to the true state of affairs either," the Baltic News Service quoted Lembergs as saying. "If the Prosecutor General's Office still corrects the mistakes it has admitted in the legal assistance request, then my claim to the court will no longer be on the agenda," he added.
The prosecutor has one month to respond to Lembergs' charges.
Though Lembergs has repeatedly stated that the legal assistance request contains false information, the request's actual contents have not been made public. Dzintra Vitolina, spokeswoman for the prosecutors office, said that because all information inside the legal assistance request was secret, she could not comment.
Excerpts that have reached the public eye come from ads placed by the Ventspils City Council, an editorial by Lembergs in the Diena daily on Jan. 12 of this year and a text excerpt from the legal assistance request published on Jan. 13. According to the extract, the prosecutor had asked for help in determining the true ownership of a number of entities.
Lembergs wrote in his editorial that since Diena is partly owned by the Swedish group Bonnier, their motivation for following this story could be an attempt to open more local businesses for foreign investment.
To be sure, litigating to stop an investigation by the prosecutor's office has been tried before, most notably by Janis Adamsons when he sued both Diena and the prosecutor to no avail.
The assistance request to Switzerland initially sought more information on true ownership of the Swiss registered Multinord AG, which became the powerful Kalija Parks, an entity that owns the lease on the land around the Ventspils port. It is alleged that Lembergs, along with a number of his associates, established firms in Switzerland in the beginning of the 1990s in order to buy local lucrative businesses in Ventspils that were then open to foreign capital.
It is also not ruled out that the mayor, who has maintained his post for over 15 years, awarded contracts to firms he has relations with. For instance, Lembergs allegedly used his position as mayor to make favorable decisions to Multinord.
One source said that Lembergs' lawyers were working furiously to slow down the investigation.
Despite suspicions as to whether Lembergs is - or has been - the owner of many offshore companies involved with oil and cargo transit in the port city - as well as numerous other enterprises including the media - the answer is likely to lie in Switzerland.
An oft-cited example is a television show that aired in 1999 when Ainars Slesers, who at the time headed the New Party, displayed an attorney power that Lembergs had given to a Swiss lawyer working for a firm that had participated in many Ventspils privatization deals. The letter was subsequently handed over to the General Prosecutor for further investigation.
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Einars Repse also pursued an investigation into the nontransparent offshore firms that own so many Ventspils companies. His deputy at the time was Slesers, whose attacks on Lembergs not once let up in 2003.
Uncovering the real owners of Ventspils Nafta and various other enterprises could go a long way in establishing the true ownership of other businesses - including media concerns - largely believed to hold the majority of the Latvian language press.
Still, the heady days of mega-cash flow for Ventspils Nafta are a thing of the past. The pipeline has been empty since January 2003, when Russia's Transneft cut supplies due to a dispute over transit fees and a strategic choice to boost its new ports on the Gulf of Finland. Russian crude is still delivered to Ventspils by rail, though this is two to three times more expensive than shipments via pipeline.