Rīga road surfacing controversy rumbles on

Towards the end of last year, the Corruption Prevention and Combating Bureau (KNAB) ended an investigation of possible illegalities in the work of the former Transport Department of Riga City Council. 

The preceding scandal involved allegations of uneconomically and expensively asphalted streets, but KNAB announced that the municipal officials who organized the repair works had not commited a crime. The mayor of Riga, Vilnis Ķirsis (New Unity), hoped that this would be the end of this scandal, but as Latvian Radio's investigative show Open Files reported January 25, there still seems to be some mileage left in the controversy.

Under the pretext of duplication of functions, the advisor to the executive director who investigated the disciplinary case, Māris Knoks, has been dismissed from his job in the municipality and contrary to earlier assurances, a fresh street maintenance tender worth hundreds of millions of euros over the next five years has still not been announced.

Andrejs Lisenko, head of the Investigative Department of KNAB, explained to Latvijas Radio that "we concluded that there is no actual criminal offense, after evaluating [potential] abuse of an official position, the inaction of local government officials and also the falsification of work, but we found that there are probably violations related to the application and interpretation of regulatory acts."

He said that the road construction works were carried out without the necessary construction documentation and there were not all necessary work documents.

These are documents that, for example, in asphalting works, builders and customers sign about the layers of materials under the main pavement, so that the customer can verify what resources have been used.

KNAB asked the Construction State Control Office to evaluate these possible violations. It, in turn, forwarded it to the Construction Authority of the Riga City Council.   

Although the management of the municipality did not appeal the favorable decision of KNAB and hoped that everything was over, it did not come true.

The prosecutor's office has now started to check the work of KNAB investigators following a complaint submitted by the company "Delna" about transparency so that in effect the investigators are being investigated as a result of their investigation.  

"Primarily, it's low-quality work! If there's no waste, great! But then let KNAB really make sure of it in quality work," said "Delna" director Inese Tauriņa. She said that the KNAB investigator based his decision on the conclusion of the Riga City Council audit. It was ordered by the management of the municipality for a different time period than when the suspicious actions of the officials are alleged to have taken place.

KNAB's decision also used the opinion of the disciplinary commission, which was made hastily and in the opinion of "Delna" is a low-quality and highly questionable document.

In spite of the Rīga mayor's hopes that the scandal would subside with KNAB's decision, it is now gaining new momentum.

Just before Christmas, executive director Jānis Lange issued a notice of termination of employment to his advisor Māris Knoks effective January 31. Knoks found alleged wrongdoing at the Department for Transport last year and believed its management should be punished.

Latvian Radio met with Knoks in mid-January. He is appealing against his dismissal and said he hopes "for effective justice in the state administration", as he has submitted requests to both the State Labor Inspectorate and the court for a quick temporary settlement in this matter and immediate reinstatement. Knoks has been working with civil service issues and evaluation of official misconduct for more than twenty years.  

It is not the first time Knoks has lost his job in controversial circumstances. In the mid-2000s, Knok was dismissed from the position of deputy head of the State Civil Service Administration by the then Prime Minister Aigars Kalvītis. After five years of litigation, Knoks won the dispute. 

He came to the Riga city council in the fall of 2020, when then-mayor Mārtiņš Staķis invited him onto his team to evaluate the work and possible violations of the officials appointed during the reign of the Harmony and Honor to Serve Rīga parties.

Now Knoks himself appears to have become an employee whom the management wants to get rid of. However, no violations have been found in his work.

"I have already received a notice of termination, and I received it on December 22, which states that my last day of work in the Riga State City Municipality in the office of the executive director as an advisor will be January 31, 2024. And the basis for the notice is the liquidation of my position," said Knoks.

He is sure that the elimination of the position, supposedly to save of resources, is only a fig leaf.

"I believe that my position is being liquidated directly in connection with the investigative activities carried out by me as an investigator in the summer of 2023 against the evaluation of the disciplinary responsibility of two leading employees of the Transport Department of Riga City Council," Knoks said.

He said that the first signal that adverse consequences could be expected from the investigation in the Department of Transport came from Olafs Pulks (New Unity), the chairman of the municipality's Transport Committee, at the beginning of June when the investigative process had barely begun. 

"Olafs Pulks made an open threat to me and my direct boss, the CEO, directly in front of other people, which is the most amazing thing, and said that if you initiate disciplinary proceedings for these violations against the senior employees of the Department of Transport, then count on all the possible negative consequences that they as politicians can provide," Knoks told Latvian Radio.

Latvian Radio interviewed several other witnesses present, and they confirmed that Olafs Pulks spoke very bluntly and his words could be perceived as a threat. Pulks himself does not deny this fact, but offers an alternative explanation – that he was talking about the effect a suspension of road repair works would have.

"The only thing I said is that you have to count on the consequences that the works that are planned for this summer will not take place – and indeed they didn't. If you don't believe me, you can look at the state of the streets right now."

As far as Latvian Radio could ascertain, Knoks is the only employee facing outright dismissal for duplication of functions. He has challenged his dismissal in court, which last week granted his request for an interim measure.

Riga municipality is prohibited by the court decision from releasing him from the position of executive director's advisor until a final judgment is made.

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