Nationwide sweep compromised by leak

  • 2011-06-01
  • Staff and wire reports

UNBRIDLED GREED: Ainars Slesers and other oligarchs are facing the heat, led by KNAB’s Juta Strike, over alleged widespread criminal activities.

RIGA - Corruption Prevention Bureau deputy chief Juta Strike said that 11 persons are involved in the ongoing and widening oligarch corruption case, including six government officials, reports news agency LETA. Twenty-six companies are involved in the case as well.

Forty-two searches have been conducted as of May 30, which Strike considers successful as a large number of materials and documents have been seized that are crucial for further investigation in the case. The Corruption Prevention Bureau’s (KNAB) extensive searches at offices and residences of the so-called oligarchs on May 25 were conducted within the framework of a criminal case on bribery, money laundering, misuse of power and other crimes, that was opened on May 20.
It was the May 26 vote in Saeima, in which the tally went against allowing KNAB to investigate the home of Saeima member Ainars Slesers (Latvia’s First Party/Latvia’s Way) and clearly exhibited that many parliamentarians put themselves above the rule of law, that triggered President Valdis Zatlers to take his case to the people on Saturday night calling for the disbandment of government.

KNAB officers leading up to the vote conducted about 40 searches altogether, including at companies affiliated with Ventspils Mayor Aivars Lembergs (For Latvia and Ventspils) and Saeima member Andris Skele (People’s Party). Judging from the information released by KNAB, the focus of the criminal procedure is on Slesers, and searches of companies connected with Lembergs and Skele were conducted within this case.

According to KNAB, Slesers clandestinely owns the companies Rigas tirdzniecibas osta (Riga Commercial Port, RTO), Zakusala Estates, Jaunrigas attistibas uznemums, Eurolines, Baltijas aviacijas sistemas and others. None of these companies has been mentioned in Slesers’ declaration of income, and Slesers insists that they belong to his friend and business partner, Viesturs Koziols.

The surprise element was lacking, however, as word of the searches had been leaked beforehand. Boriss Cilevics (Harmony Center) went so far as to say that KNAB itself leaked the information.
According to materials in the Slesers’ corruption case, one state official - a Saeima member - has been involved in making various decisions since 2004, and also participated in and influenced various decisions regarding Riga Commercial Port, which in fact belongs to this same official. The investigators have established that the MP, via various confidantes, planned and organized several financial schemes the result of which Zein Holding, which, via other companies, held a 36 percent stake in Riga Commercial Port, in fact became the property of the MP.

The investigators have also established that this MP, in order to keep his influence on the board of the Freeport of Riga after election to the 10th Saeima, pulled strings so that a member of the MP’s political party be appointed chairman of the board. This was done thanks to support from certain Saeima members who voted for the appointment of that person as the chairperson. In exchange, a Ventspils councilman demanded that a contract be signed with a company on the placement of Freeport of Riga advertisements in this company’s mass media company.

KNAB also believes that, among other crimes, Slesers, before the 10th Saeima elections, asked airBaltic President Bertolt Flick to sign fictitious contracts with several mass media companies on advertising airBaltic services or promoting the image of Riga (Live Riga); however, the money was channeled to promote Slesers and Latvia’s First Party/Latvia’s Way. The bureau believes that Flick abused his power and carried out Slesers’ plot. Flick signed two fictitious agreements with companies owned by mass media owners, and transferred at least 100,000 lats (142,800 euros) to them.

In the Zein Holding deal, KNAB says that when Slesers stepped down from the position of Freeport of Riga board chairman, he had the opportunity to officially transfer his secret RTO shares to the company Avadel. Since February 2010, Slesers, involving confidant Ivars Gulbis, Koziols, RTO co-owner and board chairman Ralfs Klavins and Tormod Stene-Johansen, actively planned and organized his scheme. KNAB believes that, as a result, 36 percent of RTO shares owned by Zein Holding were transferred to Slesers’ company Avadel.

The investigators believe that, in order to ensure that his party colleague, Riga Vice Mayor Andris Ameriks, was elected as Freeport of Riga board chairman, Slesers turned to Ventspils Mayor Aivars Lembergs (For Latvia and Ventspils) to receive support from the Union of Green and Farmers’ board member at the port, Viesturs Silenieks. In October 2010, the sides reached an agreement, according to which, when Slesers stepped down, Silenieks voted for Ameriks’ candidacy. In return, Slesers had to ensure that the Freeport of Riga signed an agreement with Neatkariga Rita Avize’s publisher Mediju nams about posting its advertisements in Mediju nams newspapers and magazines.

In voting against the authorization for law-enforcement institutions to carry out a search of the home of Slesers, Saeima “has made its most disgraceful vote since the restoration of independence, thus the Constitution must be amended to lift immunity for those Saeima members facing criminal charges,” said political observer Iveta Kazoka in an interview.
“This parliament does not care about its reputation,” she emphasized, pointing out that the decision was made in spite of the fact that Saeima members had a letter from the prosecutor general supporting the search of Slesers’ home.

Saeima MPs’ vote blocking KNAB’s request for the search proves that “in hiding behind an obsolete and undemocratic norm about a deputy’s immunity, they place themselves above the law, ignore justice, and impede the battle against the highest form of political corruption - robbing the state,” said Transparency International-Latvia (Delna) Director Kristaps Petermanis, who added that the vote “sets up obstacles in an investigation where high-ranking officials are under a cloud of suspicion, an investigation that could reveal the extent of political corruption in Latvia.”

The Estonian Chamber of Commerce in Latvia said that the decision by Zatlers is the right step in the current situation. The Chamber’s board member, Hele Lohmus, presented the position of the chamber: “The people suffer because of the greed of Saeima politicians and now the future of Latvia depends already on the results the referendum.”
Estonian entrepreneurs hope that the Latvian economic environment will improve. “We believe that the Saeima will elect the president before the referendum and the economic environment will get a chance of organizing and developing in a more stable way than before,” he added.

Prosecutor General Eriks Kalnmeiers is less surprised at the Saeima vote, but is more surprised at comments made by some Saeima members that the Prosecutor General’s Office is involved in a farce. In an interview on Latvian Radio, without knowing the details of the case, some Saeima members have accused three law enforcement institutions of being involved in a farce - the CPB, the Prosecutor General’s Office and the courts.

“One parliament member mentioned that the Prosecutor General’s Office’s reputation has been damaged. Well, let the people decide whose reputation has been damaged more. I do not believe that the Prosecutor General’s Office’s reputation has been damaged,” Kalnmeiers said. He emphasized that KNAB has gathered enough evidence, facts and documents for a strong case in the criminal process.

In the Saeima vote to authorize the search, most parliament members from Harmony Center and the Union of Greens and Farmers abstained. Thirty-five parliament members from Unity and All for Latvia-For Fatherland and Freedom/LNNK voted to permit the search, while all seven members of For a Good Latvia, as well as Iveta Grigule and Vitauts Stana (Union of Greens and Farmers) voted against.

The request was previously rejected by the Saeima Mandate, Ethics and Submissions Committee as well.