Estonian customs chief, PPA director detained on fraud-related suspicions


Eerik Heldna, director of the Customs Department of the Estonian Tax and Customs Board (MTA), and Police and Border Guard Board (PPA) Director General Elmar Vaher were detained Tuesday morning on suspicions of fraud and aiding fraud, respectively, brought by the Estonian Internal Security Service (ISS).

According to the suspicion, Eerik Heldna was, at his own request and with the involvement of Elmar Vaher, registered as ostensibly employed in the Police and Border Guard Board (PPA) in April 2019 and transferred that same day for a fixed period of time to a structural unit of the Estonian Defense Forces (EDF) where he had in fact been working for a year already.

In May 2022, Heldna filed a pension application with the Social Insurance Board (SKA) seeking a lifetime superannuated pension, the suspicion noted. SKA approved his application. The pension application was based on documents which, among other things, reflected Heldna's ostensibly generated period of police service spanning nearly two years. Without this period, Heldna would not have met the requirement of 25 years of police service and would not have had the right to a lifetime superannuated pension.

This is an initial suspicion and is subject to change in the course of proceedings.

"While it's understandable to want to earn a police pension, which is significantly higher than the old-age pension, this so-called special pension is intended for those who have contributed for the good of their country to the extent that meets qualification requirements for a special pension," said State Prosecutor Maria Entsik from the Office of the Prosecutor General.

"Exploiting the system for personal gain is unacceptable under any circumstances, and one cannot deviate from what is stipulated even out of goodwill toward someone else," Entsik continued. "The rules apply equally to everyone, and when presented with the elements of a crime, we're required by law to verify the circumstances of which we've been made aware in criminal proceedings. It's regrettable we have to make such claims against people whose day-to-day job it is to safeguard the integrity and lawfulness of conduct and who by virtue of their positions know what conduct can be treated as a crime."

Proceedings are being conducted by ISS officials under the direction of the Office of the Prosecutor General.

There may be more fake contracts

Speaking to ERR on Tuesday afternoon, Entsik confirmed that procedural acts are currently underway, however both Heldna and Vaher were detained as suspects Tuesday morning already.

"The necessary searches and interrogations of the suspects are being carried out," she said.

Asked whether Vaher had earned any sort of financial gain for such conduct, Entsik replied that she has no reason to believe so. She added that Heldna likewise did not receive pay from two places at once.

According to the prosecutor, they are not currently aware, based on this criminal proceeding, of any other such individuals having filed pension applications. She did not rule out, however, that there may be more such individuals with fictitious employment contracts with the PPA.

"There may be a known fewer than ten of them," she said, but was unable to comment on whether these fictitious employment contracts were likewise approved by Vaher, adding that this was not currently a subject to their criminal proceeding.

"An activity involving establishing or providing an individual with a specific employment relationship is considered a preparatory phase of the elements of the crime of fraud," Entsik explained. "But fraud only becomes punishable from the moment an individual has committed attempted fraud, i.e. filed an application with the SKA stating they want to receive a pension based on these documents. This means that so long as no one has gone to apply for a pension on this basis of this fictitious period of service, then we do not consider it a crime."

Belitšev appointed acting PPA chief

Following Tuesday's announcement, Minister of the Interior Lauri Läänemets (SDE) is removing Vaher as director general of the PPA and appointing Egert Belitšev as acting director, the Interior Ministry said Tuesday afternoon.

Läänemets likewise signed a directive calling for the initiation of supervisory control aimed at assessing the legality of all personnel actions at the PPA from over the past five years.

Vaher's term as director general of the PPA was slated to end at the start of May; Police Lt. Col. Egert Belitšev, the PPA's deputy director general for border management, had already been appointed to replace him.

MTA communications director Katrin Lunt told ERR that Heldna's term at the Tax and Customs Board is slated to end on April 15.

"He is currently on vacation, which means that his service relationship has been suspended," Lunt specified. "His duties are being performed by the head of customs formalities."

Heldna's anti-corruption career

Eerik Heldna was born in Tallinn in 1977. After graduating from Gustav Adolf High School, he went on to study pre-trial investigation at the Estonian Academy of Security Sciences, graduating in 2000.

He earned a master's degree in public administration at Tallinn University of Technology (TalTech), and underwent training at the FBI Academy in 2004.

Heldna served as director of the PPA's Criminal Bureau from 2005-2008, and thereafter as director general of the Central Criminal Police from 2008-2009.

From 2009-2017, Heldna served as deputy director general of the ISS in the field of corruption and organized crime prevention.

In 2017, Heldna announced that he was leaving the ISS and starting work as an adviser to the law firm Nove. In spring 2018, the law firm announced that Heldna would be leaving their office to focus on full-time work as an expert with the Estonian Center of Eastern Partnership on projects aimed at tackling corruption and introducing anti-corruption measures in Ukraine.

In November 2018, the Estonian Defense Forces (EDF) announced that Heldna had begun working for the EDF, where he was involved in security issues.

Less than a year later, he served as a staff officer as part of a German contingent on a UN mission in Mali.

In May 2020, Heldna began working at the Estonian Tax and Customs Board (MTA), where he served as director of the Customs Department.

Vaher the longtime police chief

Elmar Vaher was born in Tallinn in 1975. He is a graduate of Paikuse Police School and the Estonian Academy of Security Sciences and earned a master's degree in law from Tallinn University (TLÜ).

From 1997-2002, Vaher served in various positions within the criminal service of the Central Tallinn Police Department.

From 2002-2005, he served as superintendent and chief superintendent of the crimes against persons service under the Criminal Department of the North Prefecture.

In 2005, he was named police director of the North Prefecture's Criminal Department.

From 2005-2008, he served as acting director and director of the Central Criminal Police.

Vaher served as police prefect at the Northern Police Prefecture from 2008-2009 and prefect of the PPA's North Prefecture from 2010-2013.

On April 18, 2013, the Estonian government appointed him director general of the PPA for a five-year term.

On May 3, 2018, the Estonian government reappointed him director general of the PPA for another five-year term.

In 2015, Vaher was named Friend of the Press by the Estonian Newspaper Association.

He has been involved in several previous scandals as well. In 2016, he used a PPA card to buy himself headphones costing €299 and hiking boots costing €139 at Tallinn Airport.

In 2019, the Tallinn University (TLÜ) Academic Committee found following an investigation into alleged plagiarism in Vaher's master's thesis that while his thesis did not qualify as plagiarized, it did include incorrect citations and ultimately deserved a lower grade than it had originally been awarded. His master's thesis defense grade was thus revised from an A to a D.

In 2019, then-Finance Minister Martin Helme (EKRE), serving as acting interior minister, had wanted to get rid of Vaher, but the latter managed to hold on to his position, primarily with the clear support of then-Prime Minister Jüri Ratas (Center).

Read the article at ERR.