BRUSSELS - "A money laundering scheme could only be revealed through cross-border cooperation", says the team behind money laundering story supported by Journalismfund.eu. An Estonian team started out and in cooperation with a Bulgarian colleague revealed several stories including party funding and a pyramid-style investment scheme.

Piret Reiljan and her colleague Koit Brinkmann from Estonian business daily Äripäev in Tallinn had heard rumours about a large money laundering scheme in Estonia. Allegedly the scheme involved not only actors in Estonia but also in Russia, Bulgaria and an off-shore entity.

The two economic reporters wanted to prove their assumption – but the difficulties concerning different languages and business legislations in the various countries were an obstacle. Thus in 2009 they turned to Journalismfund.eu for support of €2550, which would allow them to travel to Bulgaria and to get legal support among other things. The jury granted the full amount in the spring of 2009 and the team set off to work.

The money laundering allegations circled around one particular company, and the research led to a series of articles along the road. Several of the articles were so significant, that they caused direct reactions in the form of investigations by authorities. And several of the articles were only possible through the cooperation with the Bulgarian colleague.

Though there were good stories dug up in Estonia, the team was still intending to unravel the background of the money laundering scheme – and preferably in the time frame, that they had put in their research plan to Journalismfund.eu. So they prepared to their trip to Bulgaria, apparently a favourite country for dodgy Estonian business schemes. During preparations they were looking for expertise and advice in Bulgaria and with the help of the network of Journalismfund.eu they got in touch with Bulgarian investigative journalist Stanimir Vaglenov.

“We had intended to travel to Bulgaria,” says journalist Piret Reiljan. “However, before taking the trip, we discussed the options with our Bulgarian colleagues and concluded that we lack opportunities to independently collect information in Bulgaria, since we have no inside sources and it takes time to go through official sources which furthermore may choose to disclose no relevant information.“ Instead the Estonian colleagues established cooperation with Vaglenov who did his part of the Bulgarian research and publishes the Bulgarian angle of the story in Bulgarian newspapers 24 Casa and Trud.  

“I think cooperating with colleagues from other countries is the only way to uncover the true in this kind of stories,” says Stanimir Vaglenov, who has long experience in researching the gray zone between business and crime. He emphasizes the importance of cooperation between journalists who trust each other, who are part of a network and who work together for years.

Articles with consequences
The first article in the research by the Estonian team was the story of a funding scheme for the Estonian ruling Reform Party. Three influential members of the party had hidden the actual costs and sponsors of their campaign for the 2007 parliamentary elections.
“We acquired the secret campaign documents of these politicians, which proved that their campaign costs were many times higher than had been officially declared. Furthermore, we found out that their campaigns were likely financed by private companies, though this form of sponsorship of political parties is illegal in Estonia,” says Koit Brinkmann, one of the two reporters on the team.  

“Over ten articles were published in Äripäev in the period of 23 October – 24 November 2009, as a result of which the Estonian politicians decided to amend the laws regulating the financing of political parties and tighten the monitoring of party campaign costs,” Brinkmann proudly states.

Series about party funding: Two MPs accused of receiving illegal funding - Advisors company paid for election campaign

The next story, the Estonian team came across during their research and thanks to the new cooperation with Vaglenov in Bulgaria, was a Ponzi-style scheme involving strange investment decisions and fake promises to Estonian investors of their investments in Bulgaria and the Caucasus. As a result of the reports done by the Äripäev reporters, the the Estonian finance watchdog agency Eesti Finantsinspektsioon began to investigate and later fined the Estonian company. Äripäev is at the moment working on another story related to Bulgaria, so the new contact was definitely worth a lot.
Here are short briefs of one story about the Estonia-Caucasus scheme.

Following a long investigation in cooperation between the Estonian team and the Bulgarian colleague, Äripäev has now also published an investigative report about a new link and new players in the money laundering scheme involving Bulgaria, Estonia and Russia. No other publication has covered these connections earlier. Tavid, the well known Estonian currency exchange firm Estonian reporters have been investigating, was again reported to have been involved in one of the largest money laundering schemes in Eastern Europe, but there is no proof that they were doing so knowingly.

Here you can read part of the story about money laundering.

“The support from Journalismfund.eu helped us stay on the track with this complicated story and never give in. We received valuable advice from the fund with regard to contacts of investigative journalists in other countries,” Äripäev’s reporter Piret Reiljan said. She added that international cooperation was one of the preconditions for success in investigative reporting, and that she would cherish the contacts she established also in the future.

Reiljan and Brinkmann call for further cross-border cooperation. If anyone is interested in covering a topic involving Estonia or the Baltic countries and he/she is looking for contacts, they will be happy to help.

By Brigitte Alfter