Center must return illegal donation despite finance watchdog shortcomings

A long-running court case has reached the stage where the Center Party must still pay back the bulk of one million euros deemed an illegal party donation has also revealed shortcomings on the part of the main watchdog body tasked with monitoring party finances.

In January this year, corruption scandal involving the Center Party and a real estate project in Tallinn prompted the resignation of Center leader Jüri Ratas as prime minister, and a coalition collapse, within hours of an investigation into the goings-on being made public.

The case ruled on Friday predates that, and involves work done by a firm for the party's political campaigning over the period 2009-2015, which was not adequately documented or invoiced for.

In essence, a Center Party complaint were not justified, the court found this week, but at the same time another court granting the complaint and annulling the injunction had made its decisions related to inadequacies in evidence presented in the first place.

The injunction concerned a donation by Midfield OU to the Center Party in the form of advertising services provided to the appellant which ERJK deemed forbidden as Midfield OU had not presented invoices to Center or requested payment for its services.

The second-tier Tallinn Circuit Court concluded Friday that there had been shortcomings in the collection of evidence which need to be eliminated, and largely upheld a previous ruling, meaning a precept the Supervisory Committee on Party Financing (ERJK) on Center remains in force.

Election campaigning by Center not properly invoiced

Center is charged with having its election campaigns from 2009-2015 conducted by a private sector firm, Midfield OÜ, whose owner is Paavo Pettai, inadequately invoiced.

Confirmations allegedly sent via email to Pettai had been dismissed as unreliable evidence by the first-tier administrative court. Pettai allegedly did not forward these to an expert witness called to the case but instead these were printed out and added to the expert assessment at some point.

The first-tier court had said: "This printout does not provide sufficient certainty for the court that the contract partner of Midfield OÜ has indeed sent such a confirmation via email."

"As Midfield OÜ has a financial interest in the resolution of this case, the company is not impartial and the documents presented by it must be viewed with reasonable skepticism. A confirmation in the form of evidence without a signature is likewise not reliable for the same reasons," the court went on.

The administrative court noted that the ERJK generally had not collected enough evidence in its administrative proceedings, adding that errors in gathering evidence were significant, as they may have affected the size of the sum Center was ordered to return to Midfield.

"Thus, the ERJK did not collect evidence to verify the link between the invoices bearing the confirmation of P. Pettai or Midfield OÜ and the appellant. Evidence presented by Midfield OÜ has not been viewed with sufficient discernment, and there has not been an attempt to check the reliability thereof through evidence that is unrelated to Midfield," the court said.

This may have affected the injunction, which thus must be annulled.

The court said that the ERJK can either conduct new administrative proceedings into the Center Party's case, collect the missing evidence or leave unproven invoices aside, recalculating the sum and issuing a new injunction to Center.

The court also left unchanged the interim injunction granted to Center on May 28, 2019, until the judgement in the litigation enters into effect, which means that the fulfillment of the ERJK injunction has been suspended until that time.

The prohibited donation must still be returned, but minus VAT.

Read more at ERR.