What is known so far about former PM Kariņš' expensive flights?

Since it has been unveiled that former Prime Minister Krišjānis Kariņš (New Unity) had a liking to private jets and special flights, more so than most European politicians, the Latvian Television broadcast "What is happening in Latvia?" (Kas notiek Latvijā/KNL) has been analyzing related data from various sources. KNL compiled its findings so far as of February 19.

The KNL analysis is provided in the form of five questions and answers "which taxpayers should get from the State Audit and prosecution", say the broadcast's creators.

Are special flights legal and at rates comparable to business class?

There are two different legal frameworks in Latvia for trips to the Council of the European Union (EU) and other events.

As regards the European Council and the payment of expenditure from the EU budget, there is a separate government instruction that also mentions “charter flights”. But there is no instruction about public budget spending to cover some of the trips to European Council, as has happened in some cases in 2021-2022 for a total of nearly 40,000 euros. If such additional financing is not provided for in advance in the State budget, it shall be paid from funds originally intended for other purposes.

Other missions shall be regulated by Regulation No. 969 regarding the procedures by which expenses related to official travel shall be reimbursed. These regulations do not say anything about Charter flights or other special transport, but paragraph 32 of the regulations for some high-ranking public officials, including the Prime Minister, states that expenses “shall be reimbursed in all modes of transport according to actual costs, but not more than according to tariffs of a business class or equivalent class.” The State Chancellery has argued in its answers to KNL's questions that business class is comparable to special flights because “an equivalent level of service is provided for both business class and special flights”.

However, the cost of special flights, which are several thousand per person flying as a delegation, is not in any way comparable to business class flights. airBaltic tickets to European destinations in business class return are often cheaper than EUR 1,000, and even if the amount is higher, it is far from several thousand. Other airlines are similar.

What proves that the Prime Minister and his office made a well-founded decision?

Responses from the State Chancellery, which were sent to the Saeima, said that “alternatives to scheduled flights are sought and evaluated by the Prime Minister's Office both on the site SkyScanner and in cooperation with the travel agency.” It has also been claimed that the agency is being asked for offers of special flights “by assessing possible options and alternatives for scheduled flights,” followed by the claim that the Prime Minister and his office “decide, in consultation with each other, on the choice of the most appropriate flight possible.”

However, in respect of those decisions, the State Chancellery did not provide the KNL with any documents, emails, or information recorded in any other way showing that a full search and evaluation had taken place and an appropriate assessment of the alternatives. There is also no factual justification and specification in which and in how many cases it has not been possible to purchase air tickets for the same flight for the entire delegation.

The information already released so far shows that regular commercial flights have flown to the relevant destinations from Rīga on the specific days. It is true, however, that a full alternative is not a day or evening flight if the event starts in the morning, but in these cases, the further question arises whether there was a serious reason not to fly to the destination of the mission on the scheduled flight the night before when it was available. Or, in the event of a return, the morning after the event.

Were the budget expenditures for special flights not excessive?

The Prime Minister's missions in Latvia are paid from the budget of the Cabinet of Ministers, which is managed by the State Chancellery. The Chancellery's explanations to deputies emphasize in particular that the State budget of 2022 includes a priority measure providing additional financing for the Prime Minister's special flights in 2022. However, it should be noted that the public budget explanatory notes do not indicate that special flights are concerned and no specific amount is specified. At the Ministry of Finance, the KNL found that the description of the priority measure mentioned that the average amount per Charter flight was planned at EUR 35 thousand, i.e. a total of 315 thousand. In fact, special flights have been used in ten cases, excluding flights to the European Council, totaling EUR 332 717, and in the second half of 2022, the volumes and risks of the pandemic decreased significantly.

In other years, both in 2021, when flights took place, and in 2023, when the pandemic was no longer acute, there was no such additional funding, while spending on special flights, excluding flights to the European Council, was €144,800 and €136,313 respectively. Publicly available information from the Treasury on the estimates of institutions shows that only just over 100 thousand are foreseen for foreign missions in 2021 and there is no clarity on what resources the extra funds were taken from.

Were the best deals on special flights chosen?

“In the offers of special flights offered by the contracting partner – travel agency – the responsible official of the Prime Minister's Office takes into account the lowest service price” – as stated in the publicly available reply of the State Chancellery in relation to questions of Saeima deputies. The KNL received from the State Chancellery only a summary of the models of aircraft offered and their prices.

Even if a special flight was the only option to assess the choice of a particular flight, it should be considered whether the offers included the really best available on the market. Small aircraft used for private overflights share several classes -- light jet, mid-size jet, and the like. While the class does not necessarily mean price difference, it should be noted that in various cases Kariņš' delegations flew different classes of aircraft. But above all, different brokerage companies are working with offers on this international market that offer clients the options available to them. Latvian travel agencies are busy working in this area every day because there are not many such flights in our country. It would therefore make sense if the bids for Prime Minister's flights were made using the biggest or best brokerage companies. Otherwise, the existence of several offers could only be a fictitious choice without actually ensuring the lowest possible costs.

In addition, the question remains as to why the national airline airBaltic was not used when it could have had lower or equivalent prices.

Why does the Prime Minister fly special flights but not presidents?

“Neither President Egils Levits used private aircraft services during his term (2019-2023) nor current President of Latvia Edgars Rinkēvičs,” KNL received such response from the Chancery of the President. This raises questions as to why the Head of Government, unlike the President, could not work without the use of special flights or, at least, without special flights in so many cases during the same timeframe.

In order to analyze the actual timing, conduct, and results of the Prime Minister's missions, which would allow the proportionality between the resources invested and the accomplishments to be assessed, KNL requested the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to issue, at least in part as far as possible, mission reports, or to consult them, but received a refusal.

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