Plastic bag money wounds reopened

Former top centrist Evelyn Sepp admitted that she donated money the origin of which was unknown to her to the Center Party in 2006. The former politician claimed other members also engaged in the practice but refused to name names.

Sepp’s confession on ETV investigative journalism program «Pealtnägija» does not come as a total bombshell. She first said that such covert funding of parties is a widespread practice in the aftermath of the Silvergate scandal in 2012.

What Sepp did not mention back then was her participation. The allegedly dirty funding of the Center Party has also been suggested by former centrist Tarmo Lausing.

No names

More than a decade later, Sepp claims she does not remember all the details (see interview). She also refuses to point fingers at former fellows. «There is no sense in dropping names. These things are always one person’s word against another’s,» she said.

Donations from before the 2007 Riigikogu elections leave no doubt the economy was booming.

However, it is impossible to draw conclusions as to the contents and origin of donations made by members of the party and other sponsors by looking at them. Regarding donations from that period, ranging from 10,000 to 20,000 kroons, long-time Center Party member, businessman Toomas Sepp was the second biggest sponsor behind businessman Yuri Shehovtsov. Sepp said yesterday that his donations were clean and came out of his own pocket.

Aadu Must also denied making private donations. Must, who has a member of Center’s board prior to the 2007 elections, said that it was his conscience that compelled him to donate nearly 160,000 kroons. «It is a relatively modest part of my income,» Must said.

Must described Evelyn Sepp and Tarmo Lausing as great exaggerators. «Yes, interesting things did happen back then, and more than one party was navigating stormy seas, but there were also more personal donations,» Must said.

Kadri Simson, who served as the party’s secretary general at the time, said yesterday that she has only donated her own money to the party. «I have presumed that is what other sponsors do,» the economy minister said.

Simson added that the Center Party’s statutes include the so-called progressive membership fee rule that requires ministers and MPs to contribute 7 percent of their gross salary as their membership fee since 2005. She suggested this explains regular donations by leading politicians at the time.

Prime Minister Jüri Ratas donated nearly 40,000 kroons in 2006 – one and a half times his monthly salary at the time. Ratas said yesterday that the money came from his salary.

«I have had no knowledge of such things, have none today, nor have I been involved in taking money of unknown origin to the party. If someone has, I believe they are obligated to notify law enforcement,» the PM said.

Velman: I honestly cannot remember

Politician Vladimir Velman, whose donations also stood out at the time, said that all manner of tricks were employed in the early 2000s and no party was exempt. Having heard public information suggests he was among the biggest sponsors, Velman suddenly lost his memory.

«I honestly do not remember there having been anything like that. I also do not remember where I worked at the time or that I ever had that much money in any of my accounts,» he said.

Sponsors who were also members of the party also included Priit Toobal who made several hefty donations to the Center Party in the first three months of 2007. Three of them were over 10,000 kroons.

The sweetest donation Toobal made was 25,500 kroons a month and a half before elections. After this impressive donations rally, Toobal was made secretary general of the party and put in charge of its finances in the second half of 2007.

Interestingly enough, Toobal’s donations came to nothing over the next three years as secretary general. Toobal, who has left politics, refused to comment yesterday.

There were bills to pay and competitors to fight 

Evelyn Sepp, who left the Center Party in 2014, says that taking money of dubious origin to the party treasury was so commonplace in the 2000s that no one even batted an eye.

There was a group of people whose task it was to get the money to the party?

I suppose you could say that, even though I do not remember all these incidents and people. Besides, it is impossible to prove any of it. People should simply admit that these things happened and that denying them is just silly

Do you remember how many times you «donated» in such a fashion?

Of course not! The practice went on for years. How do you think campaigns were funded and money made legal?

Did you know where the money came from?

Of course not.

Did you even ask, or was it standard practice not to ask?

You don’t ask. No one would have told you anyway.

How many people were in that circle?

I do not think any aide to the chairman, bureau employee or important Riigikogu group employee could possibly have been outside that circle. It was simply unrealistic.

Where did the guidelines come from: secretary general, chairman or someone else?

Hard to say. Everyone realizes that if you have a problem, it needs a solution. There are various ways to solve a problem: legal and illegal, transparent and somewhat less transparent.

Your conscience didn’t bother you?

It did not. Bills had to be paid and political competitors fought off. Some sponsors could not donate publicly as it would have cost them a great deal in terms of their business.

We are mostly talking about leading Estonian businessmen?

Quite likely.

How did it work? Did the money come in the form of cash?

I’m sure some of it came in as cash as it was distributed to people so they could donate.

Were you told to show up somewhere to be given the money you then had to deposit to your bank account and transfer to the party?

My memory is not clear on that anymore.

***

Helen Mihelson

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