«There is nothing else in this world that is lost as easily as public trust. Yes, I can feel this trust [in National Armed Forces] is lost, and we will have to work to restore it,» said Latvian Minister of Defence Ināra Mūrniece on Tuesday, the 7th of March, reporting to the media about the scandalous army food procurement worth EUR 220 million.
During the press-conference with her and the ministry’s state secretary Jānis Garisons there were true emotional outbursts, but no specifics. Mūrniece explained that
«a certain law enforcement institution’s written request» has been received to prevent the release of detailed information about the procurement,
so that it does not interfere with the investigation.
More about the National Armed Forces food procurement scandal – here.
Until now it was reported that materials of the case having been submitted to the Corruption Prevention and Combating Bureau (KNAB). Now the Ministry of Defence has admitted that other law enforcement institutions are involved in the investigation. Judging by Mūrniece’s and Garisons’ demonstrative defensiveness, we can only guess the law enforcement institution in question is the Constitution Protection Bureau.
As the state secretary mentioned in his explanation to the need for the strategic needs of this procurement, Latvian armed forces had approximately 130 food supply contracts, but none of them included formation of strategic food reserves in the event of a war. This is why work commenced in December 2022 to compose a contract that would include this. Latvia University of Life Sciences and Technologies was contracted to assist and analyse creation of reserves, logistics and warehouse capacity.
The minister admits: «At first the procurement had only one objective, but let’s be honest – the result is completely different. […] At first it was planned to procure logistical services. Now, on the other hand, it seems the procurement was for catering services. During the procurement procedure there were incomprehensible changes added to the qualification requirements of applicants.»
She proposed performing an initial inspection. Results confirmed initial suspicions about possible violations in this procurement. The inspection revealed there were no comprehensive requirements presented for a procurement of this kind and scale: there were no minimal requirements for transport and warehouse capacity or minimal company turnover for the past three years.
The committee of the procurement did not provide equal treatment of all participants of the procurement,
instead showing preference to a specific company. Security aspects were not considered (it is mentioned that the co-owner of the winning company Zītari LZ Modris Supe as a lawyer had defended Russia’s business interests in Latvia).
As for the contract’s price, it is stressed that the state defence budget cannot afford it. The client should have specified that such a large amount – even if completely justified – is not available. These EUR 220 million represent one of the biggest violations uncovered in the inspection – signing a contract without financial justifications. But it was signed by multiple NBS officials. The minister says it is «surprising something like this even happened».
The state secretary said he found out about this amount from the media, because before then it was about «eight million euros and five years».
However, this procurement is binding for Latvia’s National Armed Forces and Ministry of Defence. This is why the minister stressed it will be assessed very carefully to prevent damages to the state.
On top of that, it is planned to commence an internal investigation of «specific officials» (all members of the procurement committee, as well as workers associated with this procurement). Once their responsibility has been assessed, the decision will be made on their possible suspension. Mūrniece said the internal investigation is «a matter of days, not months».
The general consensus in the management of the Ministry of Defence is that two officials may be suspended. When asked about his personal responsibility, Garisons easily weaseled out by saying
«I don’t have a crystal ball to find out what subordinates are doing»,
because the defence sector performs around two hundred procurements every year, and it is not possible to trace every single one.
The minister defended Garisons: «State secretaries cannot do all the work entrusted to officials!» Everyone has their duties and responsibilities. On top of that, other officials are not allowed to interfere with the work done by procurement committees. Mūrniece stressed it is necessary to strengthen internal monitoring. However, even if it is possible to create a wonderful system, how is it supposed to protect against abuse of power?
When asked if termination or freezing of the procurement could put at risk supplies for NAF, Garisons said it was clear from the start this would be a lengthy procedure. It is not possible to transition from all previously signed contracts to the new one signed with Zītari LZ. Transition is gradual. Three contracts with NAF are already over, but they were not the biggest ones. The contract in question came into force in February. Others will come into force once previous contracts are over. Most of them come into force next year. He stressed: NAF units are supplied with food very well.
BNN asked the minister if she as an experienced politician sees any direct link between Supe’s donations to For Latvia’s Development political party and the outcome of the procurement.
As an experienced politician, Mūrniece dodged the question: «I daresay I have already answered this question: first there was an inspection of the Ministry of Defence, in which we concluded it is necessary to evaluate responsibility of specific officials. Materials are in the hands of law enforcement institutions.»
BNN also reminded her of Valdis Verners – advisor to previous Minister of Defence Artis Pabriks – and the public application addressed to her. In it, Verners mentioned that if all documents of the procurement are revealed, it would prove his innocence. What was the minister’s response to Verners and society in genera? The minister responded with a reminder of the request from law enforcers to not public related information.
This verbal riposte is advantageous to the management of the ministry, because it protects society from the shock that would be caused from leaking information related to the scandal. It is so advantageous, in fact, that BNN felt forced to ask Mūrniece: «The request was the initiative of law enforcers or did the ministry ask them to request such a thing?»
«We exchanged information about this contract,» was all that Mūrniece said.
Also read: Latvian Federation of Food Enterprises invites halting scandalous army food supply procurement