Election contributions can lead to criminal charges at municipal level
Professor: suspicions arise if politicians have possibility to help their backers
Municipal officials could face charges of bribery if they have accepted election funding from a company whose interests they have been in a position of advancing in a municipality, says Matti Tolvanen, Professor of Criminal and Procedural Law at the University of Joensuu.
“In an extreme case, charges are possible even if the person were to vote against a project”, Tolvanen says.
He says that it is enough if the official is in a position in which he or she can promote the interests of the donor. For instance, if a local council were to decide on a zoning change that would make it possible for a company to develop a site, and a council member supported by the company is involved in the vote, suspicions could arise.
“It could be grounds for a criminal investigation”, Tolvanen says.
Companies involved in KMS, an association formed to channel campaign contributions to Parliamentary candidates of its choosing in the 2007 Parliamentary elections, have projects in different parts of Finland.
In Oulu, the Masku furniture store chain owned by businessman Toivo Sukari has recently built a large outlet in the district of Ritaharju.
Implementation of the plan required zoning changes, which were unanimously approved at a meeting of the Oulu City Council on May 19th, 2008.
According to the minutes of the meeting, two City Council members, Minister of Communications Suvi Lindén (Nat. Coalition Party) and former MP Riikka Moilanen (Centre), both took part in the vote. Each received EUR 5,000 in election funding from KMS.
Lindén does not have a clear recollection of whether or not the matter was debated during any meeting that she attended. The zoning change was the second-last item on the agenda of the meeting, and Lindén had left the meeting about 20 minutes before the meeting ended.
However, she does not feel that she would have had to disqualify herself, as the support from KMS and the zoning decision are unrelated.
Lindén questions Tolvanen’s interpretation of the criminal law.
“If this is the interpretation that people want to make, then there would be hundreds if not thousands of criminals among us Finnish elected officials.”
Lindén feels that it is sufficient openness if an official discloses contributors as required by law.
However, the problem with the KMS issue was that the financiers would have stayed hidden behind the association if no fuss had been raised.
According to Lindén, disqualifying herself would also have been strange; she says that it would have given the signal that there is something inherently suspicious about political donations.
“That would specifically create the impression that you would have taken money in exchange for a favour”, Lindén says.
Moilanen says that she does not yet know all of those who are behind KMS. “I have never had anything to do with these people, and I do not feel that anyone would have tried to influence me.”
Tolvanen feels that the case sounds like something that should be clarified. “Normally a suspicion at this level is enough”, Tolvanen says.
All that is required for a suspicion to emerge is the mere possibility of wielding influence, but conviction requires proof that the benefit received is linked with the ability of an official to sway decisions.
Tolvanen says that malfeasance is suspected in the matter. According to legislation on municipal affairs, a civil servant or municipal official must not be involved in deciding a matter if there is reason to suspect that the person has not acted in an impartial manner.
In the view of Teuvo Pohjolainen, Professor of Procedural Law at the University of Joensuu, members of municipal councils and boards are in the most critical position with respect to bribery suspicions, in the eyes of the criminal law.
“For an ordinary council member, the threshold can come about mainly when that person seeks to actively promote the interests of his financier.”
Last summer in Rovaniemi, municipal officials and the police investigated whether or not the Chairman of the City Council Ari Ruotsalainen (Centre) and Council member Lasse Lontiola (Centre) should have disqualified themselves from decisions related to the Nova Group snowmobile factory, as they had connections with KMS.
No conflict of interest was found, and the police did not initiate an investigation.
Previously in HS International Edition:
Vanhanen: Kontiola called to apologise before coming out on KMS (12.6.2008)
KMS support to Vanhanen campaign: Centre Party’s Kontiola made bank transaction (9.6.2008)
Nova Group backed KMS with at least EUR 145,000 (6.6.2008)
Police investigating Rovaniemi property dealings with Nova Group (16.6.2008)