TALLINN - Several present and former members of the Estonian Cabinet had to return the money they received as board members of government-sponsored foundations after it was discovered last week that such payments contradicted the law.
Culture Minister Urmas Paet and Minister of Environmental Affairs Villu Reiljan will each have to return the money they received for serving as board members of the Estonian Film Foundation and the Environmental Investment Foundation, respectively. In 2003 the two ministers received together about 4,800 euros from the foundations.
Estonian laws do not allow government ministers to hold a paid job other than the minister's post. Yet some of them received payments for their work on the boards and councils of other governmental institutions.
The controversy became public when Finance Minister Taavi Veskimagi criticized the application of Reiljan to pay some 10,000 euros in bonuses to the members of the Environmental Investment Foundation board. As chairman of the foundation, Reiljan himself would have received about 1,700 euros as a bonus payment.
In a news conference after the weekly government meeting Prime Minister Juhan Parts said that "a minister gets his minister's salary. Period."
Parts added that the law could be amended if necessary, but regardless the money earned illegally in the past must be returned. The prime minister confirmed that Paet and Reiljan promised him to pay the money back.
On Jan. 9 Reiljan stated that he had returned the money to both the Environmental Investment Foundation and the National Forest Management Center, the two institutions where he serves as chairman of the board.
"I acknowledge the work of the media that has drawn attention to the contradiction between the law and the rulings of the [previous] finance ministers," said Reiljan, who had to return about 2,700 euros.
Other ministers of the current and the previous Cabinet who have received any board member payments from foundations will also have to return them to the state, according to Parts.
According to a representative of the State Audit Office, ministers could perform duties of board members and chairpersons of foundations but have to do it without compensation.
Paet told the daily Postimees that he accepted the payments from the foundation because he had considered it legal and there were no problems with the parliamentary anti-corruption commission regarding the payments.
"It is bad, of course, if the money has been received illegally. In such a case payments should be stopped at once and the received money must be returned," he said.
Former Finance Minister Tonis Palts checked his bank account history and paid back about 1,700 euros he had received as a board member of the Financial Inspectorate and the Guarantee Fund.
"I consider it right that a minister receives only one salary for his work. I apologize my inattention had brought such an incident," Palts was quoted by the spokesman of the Res Publica faction in the Parliament as saying.
Social Affairs Minister Marko Pomerants returned about 383 euros he earned from the Virumaa Muuseumid museum foundation.