RIGA - Prime Minister Aigars Kalvitis demanded the resignation of Transport Minister Ainars Slesers on March 15 after incriminating phone conversations with Slesers implied he was aware of vote-buying in Jurmala after the municipal elections last year. The demand comes three days after the March 12 LTV program "De facto" broadcast transcriptions of the tapes suggesting that former Prime Minister Andris Skele and Slesers, who leads Latvia's First Party, were aware of attempts to bribe a politician to sway the council.
It was unclear as The Baltic Times went to press whether Slesers' resignation would lead to a coalitional crisis. The party was scheduled to discuss their decision on March 15.
The phone conversations took place last spring, just after the municipal elections left the balance of power in Jurmala, a real estate gold mine, undetermined.
Last year's municipal election in Jurmala was annulled by court order after it emerged that a bribe was allegedly offered to one of the city council members in exchange for a vote. This one decisive ballot would have kept New Era candidate Inese Aizstrauta from becoming city mayor.
The Jurmala election was annuled by court order after it was emerged that a bribe was offered to a council member. The ballot was highly contested since one decisive ballot kept Juris Hlevickis of Latvia's First Party from becoming mayor of the seaside town.
Inese Aizstrauta, a candidate from New Era, a coalition party that is at odds with Latvia's First, eventually became mayor.
As the Sunday evening "Panorama" news program reported, Skele and Slesers spoke on the phone with Jurmala landowner Germans Miluss, who is currently being charged with offering the 20,000 euro bribe. The conversations seemed to suggest that both politicians were aware of bribery attempts.
But the Prosecutor's Office have dropped Slesers and Skele from a bribery investigation due to lack of evidence.
The scandal has rattled Latvia's political arena to the core, and some are claiming that it is the biggest scandal since the country joined the European Union.
"De Facto" has received both praise and criticism for its decision to run the incriminating material. Some argue that the material was deliberately leaked before parliamentary elections, possibly from the anti-corruption bureau, to cast a bad light on certain parties.
Prime Minister Aigars Kalvitis said the Prosecutor's Office should investigate the leak and discover how the tapes ended up in the hands of public television.
When asked about the "anonymous leak," LTV news producer Anita Brauna declined to say who "De facto" had received the recordings from.
Brauna believes her team made the right decision. "I think this [evidence] is a very serious thing, and we had to broadcast it right away, despite the timing with elections. As the media, we were just doing our job," she told The Baltic Times.
"I believe that the phone conversations speak for themselves," Brauna said. "People will see how our politicians handle [elections] and that money plays a big part. Latvians can make their own decision based on what we've shown them, and I hope they think about this before voting."
A red-faced Slesers, meanwhile, has been on the defense ever since appearing on the show. As late as March 15 morning, he said his conscience was clear.
During the morning news program "900 Sekundes" (900 Seconds) on March 13, Slesers said he was angered by attempts to politicize the case, especially before the trial has begun.
"It is not normal for the mass media to judge who's guilty and who's not," he said.
Kalvitis, a member of the People's Party, said it was not the first time that information had been leaked to the mass media. "It is a very interesting case," the PM said on March 14, pointing out that "De facto" had shown only select telephone conversations.
"They should have put it all on the table," Kalvitis said, adding that it was "the responsibility of the Prosecutor's Office" to look into the case.
In response, Brauna said this week's program will run even more tape-recorded material. "We are planning to publish all of the conversations we received on Sunday. This time, more people are involved, and there will be more information. But the essence will still be the same," she said.
Following the Jurmala elections in 2005, the Prosecutor General's Office sent a criminal case on attempted bribery to the Riga Regional Court. There were four defendants in the case 's the former Jurmala Mayor Hlevickis, Leonids Lasmanis and Gvido Harijs Volburgs, who both ran for the New Center party in Jurmala's elections last spring but were not elected, and Miluss.
All have been charged with premeditated bribery and conspiracy, and face 5 to 12 years in prison with or without confiscation of property, if found guilty.