The proceedings in the Zakatistovs-Tamužs criminal case are drawing to a close

The trial on fraud charges against one of Latvia's most senior officials, Parliamentary Secretary of the Ministry of Finance and Member of the Saeima Atis Zakatistovs, as well as against businessman Viesturs Tamužs, is nearing its conclusion, as the court debates have already been completed.
10.05.2022. Uldis Dreiblats, Ritums Rozenbergs
 
Atis Zakatistovs (right), Parliamentary Secretary at the Ministry of Finance, and businessman Viesturs Tamužs have been on trial for almost two years in an apparently absurd criminal case that grew out of another criminal case involving Rudolf Meroni and Artuss Kaimiņš, suspected of far more serious crimes, as a result of shifting the goalposts ©F64/Neatkarīgā

In contrast, the proceedings against MP Artuss Kaimiņš for falsifying accounting data are only "over halfway" and the judge hopes to complete the process "by autumn at the latest" - i.e. after the parliamentary elections, Neatkarīgā was informed by the Courts Administration of Latvia.

The law enforcement authorities refuse to inform anyone about the criminal proceedings against the former custodian Rudolf Meroni - he is still untouchable in Latvia, even though he has already lost his status as a custodian of seized property.

Some readers may wonder: what do Artuss Kaimiņš and Rudolf Meroni have to do with the criminal proceedings against Atis Zakatistovs and Viesturs Tamužs?

Not only parties, but also individual politicians were financed

The connection is the most direct, because the criminal proceedings were initiated because of very real suspicions that Meroni had illegally financed Kaimiņš and his then party KPV LV through fictitious advertising contracts. Specifically, criminal proceedings were initiated for "illegal party financing, intermediation in party financing and acceptance of illegal financing" because, and we quote, "Rudolf Meroni, using his personal and company funds, allegedly carried out illegal financing of several political parties on a large scale through other persons".

The reason why Rudolf Meroni might have wanted to illegally finance "several political parties" is also clearly stated in the procedural documents: "In the criminal proceedings, information was obtained that the Swiss lawyer Rudolf Meroni, entrusted by the Prosecutor General's Office of the Republic of Latvia to manage the property belonging to the family of Ventspils Mayor Aivars Lembergs,

may have illegally financed political parties and individual politicians in order to influence political processes and decisions in Latvia."

As for the mechanism of illegal financing of the Saeima MP Kaimiņš and the party he founded, KNAB investigators obtained the following information: companies controlled by Meroni placed a fictitious advertisement on the internet program "Suņu būda", hosted by Kaimiņš. For example, SIA Media Support, controlled by Meroni, allegedly advertised on "Suņu būda" for as much as €169,000, while JSC Ventbunkers advertised for €27,850.

"In the criminal proceedings, there are reasonable suspicions that the activities of Artuss Kaimiņš as a Member of the 12th Saeima and politician, as well as the activities of the political party KPV LV, were illegally financed in this way," the materials of the criminal case described here state.

Moreover, the nearly €200,000 recorded in KNAB procedural documents is by no means the only amount that flowed from Rudolf Meroni-controlled companies into the pockets of politicians.

One should recall, for example, the €5,000 per month for "consultancy" during the pre-election period, allegedly provided to JSC Ventbunkers by the Unity (Vienotība) politician Ģirts Valdis Kristovskis, as described in the press.

Ilmārs Poikāns, who was for some time a board member of the KPV LV party, publicly wrote about the fictitious nature of the advertising of the companies controlled by Meroni. More serious evidence has been provided by Edgars Ciniņš, who was at one time the head of almost all the companies controlled by Meroni and, accordingly, a person of trust of the Swiss man. He personally signed payment documents for the fictitious advertising on behalf of Meroni.

This was, of course, a very real threat, not so much to Meroni as to the Latvian politicians he had financed. The criminal proceedings thus initiated posed a very real threat to Meroni's power in Latvia, which manifested itself and continues to manifest itself in total impunity.

Meroni somehow disappeared from the criminal proceedings

But then, in November 2017, for reasons that are not clear, this "main criminal case" of "illegal financing" of "certain politicians" and parties was joined by the episode that Viesturs Tamužs, a businessman, the creator of the Eco Baltia group, the Chairman of the Supervisory Board of JSC Eco Baltia, might also have financed the KPV LV party by hiring Atis Zakatistovs, a member of the KPV LV party board at the time, as a consultant. Zakatistovs was paid €2,000 per month for this consultancy (a total of €26,620).

But seven months later, in June 2018, then-Prime Minister Māris Kučinskis felt the urgent need to distract the public from the obvious failures of the government he was leading, as the parliamentary elections were approaching.

The public attention was indeed diverted from the failures of the Kučinskis government for a while, as the KNAB made a grand show by arresting a Member of the Saeima in the Saeima building for the first time in the history of Latvia. It was Artuss Kaimiņš who was arrested in the Saeima building, while Zakatistovs, who was not a public official at the time, and the businessman Tamužs, who was not a public official before or since, were also detained in a temporary detention isolator.

As is well known, this performance worked against the objectives of its planners, because a large part of Latvian society did not believe that these three gentlemen, arrested for a few days, had done anything wrong, which is why Kaimiņš, Zakatistovs and the KPV LV party led by them obtained brilliant results in the 13th Saeima elections held in October 2018, i.e. a few months after this detention performance.

However, the foreigner Meroni, for whose desire to, and we quote again, "influence political processes and influence political decisions in Latvia" the criminal proceedings were initiated, was no longer mentioned in the context of these notable events and could live peacefully and happily.

Shifting the goalposts

After some time, the most serious part of the criminal proceedings, the illegal financing of political parties, was dropped altogether, so that Meroni could live even more peacefully.

But on the initiative of the supervising prosecutor, Māris Urbāns, the criminal case against the Member of the Saeima Kaimiņš for allegedly falsifying accounting data in a company that he did not own remained.

The criminal case against Tamužs and Zakatistovs was also separated from the "main case" on the grounds that Tamužs, the creator and shareholder of a company worth tens of millions, had defrauded his company of €26,000 because the doctor of philosophy from the University of Ottawa was not competent enough to give advice.

As Andris Kluss, Zakatistovs' lawyer, assessed this political shifting of the goalposts very diplomatically in his debate speech, "in essence, the impression has been given that the instigator of the proceedings just tried to find some article of the Criminal Law for the individuals - whatever it may be".

As a result, Meroni and Kaimiņš did not have to explain to the court why SIA Media Support and JSC Ventbunkers decided to advertise in the "Suņu būda" for nearly €200,000 and what the economic benefit of this advertising was.

But it took Zakatistovs and Tamužs almost two years to clarify in court whether Zakatistovs had given advice to Tamužs for eight times lesser amount; whether he was competent to give such advice; and whether such advice was necessary at all.

People have a duty towards the environment

The core business of JSC Eco Baltia, of which Tamužs was Chairman of the Supervisory Board, is waste management and recycling.

In 2017, was the current Parliamentary Secretary of the Ministry of Finance, Zakatistovs, who has had a significant say in the formulation of the Latvian state budget and the distribution of billions for several years, competent in these environmental management issues?

Here is how Zakatistovs himself described his competence in this area when testifying in court: "First of all, waste management issues have to be seen in the broader context of environmental protection, people's duty towards the environment and sustainable development. This range of issues can be defined as environmental philosophy or environmental ethics."

Zakatistovs received his PhD in Philosophy from the University of Ottawa in 2001, specializing in environmental philosophy. He has taught at several universities in Canada, including courses in environmental philosophy at the University of Ottawa.

In 2003, Zakatistovs returned to Latvia, where he continues to lecture on environmental philosophy and ethics, as well as business sustainability and ethics, at several universities. "The definition of sustainable development, together with the analysis of social and business issues, also includes environmental protection and waste management. The concept of 'circular economy' is based on the understanding of sustainable development," Zakatistovs explained in court.

Given that waste management issues are closely linked to legislation, especially legislation at the European level, Zakatistovs listed in court a long list of tasks that Tamužs had given him in studying European directives, collecting experience from other countries and analyzing future trends in waste management.

Were the consultations necessary?

Both the defendants and other witnesses confirmed that consultation was necessary and that an independent consultant "outside the waste management system" was sought.

The Chairman of the Supervisory Board, the most senior official of a large group, was entitled to use an external consultant. Other members of the Supervisory Board of JSC Eco Baltia have also engaged external consultants.

Consultancy services have also been provided to the company for much larger sums. The sums paid to Zakatistovs' firm "were insignificant to the Supervisory Board, which decided on investments of millions in producing companies", testified Undīne Būde, shareholder and Supervisory Board member of JSC Eco Baltia, in court.

The billing arrangements for the consultancy were the same as in other cases.

Huge conflicts tend to be resolved by criminal law

Several participants and witnesses spoke about the conflict between the shareholders of JSC Eco Baltia as the main reason why one of them, Māris Simanovičs, initiated a complaint to the KNAB about suspicions that the consultancy contract was being used to finance a political party. Given that the shareholders also held positions in the senior management structures of JSC Eco Baltia - Tamužs was Chairman of the Supervisory Board of JSC Eco Baltia, and Māris Simanovičs was Chairman of the Management Board of JSC Eco Baltia's main subsidiary, SIA Eco Baltia Grupa, the shareholder conflict also manifested itself as a conflict between the Group's Supervisory Board and Management Board.

Zakatistovs: "Viesturs Tamužs sought an independent consultant, as disagreements began to develop among the company's shareholders about the direction of the company's strategic development. Viesturs Tamužs saw waste recycling as the most promising direction for the company. Māris Simanovičs wanted to strategically develop waste collection competence. It was a time of uncertainty for the industry, as the Riga waste monopoly and the Tīrīga cartel began to develop."

Other witnesses also testified that the company's Supervisory Board saw development in the recycling, while the Management Board saw development in the waste collection business. The conflict between the Supervisory Board and the Management Board only deepened.

Was advice given?

The Supervisory Board's lack of confidence in the Management Board led to the Management Board no longer being invited to Supervisory Board meetings, so the Management Board did not even know the content of the advice given by Zakatistovs. However, it was aware of the fact that some advice had been given, because the members of the Management Board signed the taking-over certificates.

None of the witnesses (including Simanovičs himself) claimed in court that Zakatistovs had not given advice. They testified that there were suspicions that the consultations were fictitious, which arose after a clearly edited video of a KPV LV party members' meeting was circulated on the internet, at which Tamužs was also present. Although such a video is inadmissible evidence, it was the prosecutor Maris Urbāns who referred to it as evidence of the defendants' guilt.

However, the most important evidence in the case that advice was provided is the two submissions by SIA Eco Baltia Grupa, which has been recognized as a victim in the criminal case, in which it stated that the advice was in the company's "economic interests" and that no damage had been caused to the legal entity recognized as a victim. Consequently, the alleged criminal offence of fraud is also absent. Consequently, in accordance with the case-law of the Senate of the Supreme Court, the court will have to give a judgment of acquittal in this case.

No offence has been committed

As Tamužs' lawyer, Jeļena Kvjatkovska, told the court, these proceedings were pointless and absurd in their essence - "there were suspicions, but they were not confirmed".

"SIA Eco Baltia Group states unequivocally that no criminal offence has been committed against its property interests. The victim itself admits that the initial assessment of the circumstances of the case back in 2017, when SIA Eco Baltia Grupa filed an application with the KNAB about the alleged commission of a criminal offence, was erroneous and untrue," said Kvjatkovska.

"How permissible is it to continue with criminal proceedings if, in the course of the proceedings, it is discovered that the property interests of the alleged victim of a crime of a pecuniary nature have not suffered any damage at all, and if this person, being also the applicant for the initiation of criminal proceedings, furthermore clearly and unequivocally informs the person directing the proceedings that a criminal offence has not been committed?" she asked rhetorically.

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