RIGA - The special minister for e-governance was forced to resign following the revelation of a birthday party she threw for herself using state funds.
Ina Gudele, special task minister for electronic governance and a member of the Greens and Farmers Union, handed in her resignation on April 21.
According to reports, she walked out of a government meeting during a break, placed a letter of resignation on the prime minister's desk and left the building without speaking to the press.
News of the resignation, the first in the new Cabinet that was approved by Parliament at the end of December, was a blow to the government's credibility at a time when the public trust is already at a nadir.
Prime Minister Ivars Godmanis has appointed Environment Minister Raimonds Vejonis to replace the outgoing minister until the Greens and Farmers Union, a member of the ruling coalition, can decide on a new candidate for the post.
Indrikis Putnins, the party's spokesman, said, "I can only guess who it could be, but none of them have accepted the nomination yet. It could be any of the three named this morning [April 22] 's Valmiera deputy Elmars Svede, former parliamentarian Uldis Augulis and co-chairman of the Latvian Farmers Party, Viesturs Silenieks."
The party was set to come to a decision on one of the candidates by April 28.
Gudele's fate was sealed on April 16 after news broke that she had spent 790 lats (1,144 euros) of taxpayer money on her 43rd birthday party last June.
She reportedly used money earmarked for a seminar on e-services for municipal governments for the party. Local media took immediate interest in the scandal, reporting that the party took place at one of Riga's top hotels and included cocktails and a lavish strawberry cake.
Gudele later said she had attended a Cabinet meeting during the party and had been unable to attend.
She claimed that, despite the fact the invitations for the party had come from her e-mail address, she did not organize the event.
The Greens and Farmers Union, which has been beset by scandal and incriminations over the past year, called a meeting to discuss the issue. Nevertheless, the party unanimously decided that Gudele should continue working in the post.
Many felt otherwise. President Valdis Zatlers, speaking in a radio interview the following morning, urged the minister to "seriously consider" resigning over the affair.
"There are some things which are unacceptable for officials... We know them. Awarding oneself does not sound wise. A birthday party sounds incompatible with being a state official," the president said.
Gudele handed in her resignation later that day. Godmanis, however, disregarded the president's recommendation and refused to accept the resignation on the basis that the minister had tried to rectify the situation.
The prime minister said there were still a number of "urgent issues" that Gudele needed to deal with, including the introduction of an e-signature system. He also said the minister needed to devise an electronic tax payment system so that accountants would not have to walk "with heaps of paper here and there."
Godmanis said the fact the minister had apologized and paid the money back indicated that she had appropriately dealt with the situation.
Conspiracy theorists have linked the minister's resignation with the reappointment of Janis Kazocins, Latvia's chief spy (see story Page 1).
The "Nothing Personal" television news program reported on April 20 that Gudele had collaborated with the Constitution Protection Bureau, Latvia's main intelligence agency, and that some coalition members suspect she was an informant.
In an April 22 interview with Latvian public radio, however, Gudele denied that she was pressured by the Constitution Protection Bureau in any way. She refused to comment on why she met with the organization.
The Greens and Farmers Union has suffered a slew of damaging scandals over the past year.
Aivars Lembergs, a former candidate for prime minister and one of the main backers of the party, stands accused of large scale bribery and extortion in a high profile corruption scandal. Lembergs, mayor of the Western port town of Ventspils, was recently released from house arrest but still awaits trial.
Indulis Emsis, a former prime minister and speaker of parliament, was forced to resign as speaker over suspicions of bribery. Emsis left a briefcase containing $15,000 in a cafe in the government building and later provided contradictory evidence to prosecutors about the money, part of which was stolen but then returned.
Gudele said on April 22 that she plans on temporarily leaving politics.