TALLINN - The temporary misplacement of an 11-ton armored personnel carrier by the Kaitseliit, Estonia's 9,000-strong voluntary Defence League, has cast a shadow over the organization's reputation, prompting officials to review its accounting practices.
The Harju district Kaitseliit had been using the Soviet-built BTR-70, which was stripped of its weaponry, for training purposes. In 2002 the league signed the vehicle over to two fellow members who had offered to repair it in their private shop, according to Kaitseliit press representative Tanel Rutman. It wasn't until undergoing an audit in 2004 that the Kaitseliit realized the two men had not returned the vehicle.
After refusing to produce the APC or explain its whereabouts, the two were found insubordinate and discharged from the Kaitseliit on Jan. 26, 2005. A criminal investigation into the vehicle's disappearance was launched on Feb. 17 at the request of the Kaitseliit.
The controversy could not have come at a worse time. An Ernst & Young audit released on Feb. 28 confirmed serious deficiencies in the Kaitseliit's bookkeeping, according to Tonis Saar, chief auditor for the State Audit Office's second department. Recommendations his office made after a 2003 audit found faults, in particular with regard to tracking fixed assets, were not followed, he said.
"What we found [in 2003] was that there was no bookkeeping, which means that the rifles and all the other assets are not safeguarded properly," he said, adding that the missing APC was a perfect illustration of the problem.
According to Saar, the report indicates that "their accounting situation is pretty much the same as it was in 2003, so they haven't done much to make it work properly."
On March 2 the State Audit Office issued a strongly worded letter to the Kaitseliit, the government and the Ministry of Defense, demanding that major steps be taken to address the Kaitseliit's accounting problem. The audit office ordered the Ministry of Defense to respond by April 4.
Meanwhile, after reports about opening a criminal investigation over the vehicle's disappearance surfaced in the media, one of the two suspects voluntarily turned in the APC on March 1, said Erle Rudi, spokesperson for the Northern Prosecutor's Office. The former Kaitseliit member is now the only suspect in the case.
Rudi would not, however, release details as to why the man initially refused to turn over the vehicle, nor would he say whether charges would be brought.
Rutman downplayed the disappearance of the APC, stressing that it was not dangerous, that private individuals could technically own and register such vehicles in Estonia (provided weapons are removed as in this case) and that it was worth little more than its value in scrap metal.
"From our point of view people have been too emotional about the issue," he said.
The Kaitseliit's board of elders is scheduled to meet March 9 to discuss the issue, according to Rutman. In a show of interest, the board has invited Auditor General Mihkel Oviir, as well as representatives from Ernst & Young to attend.
The Ministry of Defense is taking the matter just as seriously. Not only has the ministry formed an investigation commission, but it issued an interim report to Defense Minister Jaak Joeruut prior to the April 4 deadline.
"We want to know what's going on as well," said ministry spokesman Madis Mikko, adding that the minister saw the problem as "serious and unfortunate" and wanted to look into it as quickly as possible.
One positive development is that the ministry last week submitted changes to the law, merging the Kaitseliit's accounting under one office. The organization is currently comprised of 16 juridical bodies, each with its own bookkeeping.