Anti-corruption squad swoops on Ogre mayor

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Officers of the Corruption Prevention and Combating Bureau (KNAB) are conducting searches August 21 at municipal offices in the town of Ogre, central Latvia, and have detained mayor Egils Helmanis, reports Latvian Radio.

"Today, August 21, KNAB is conducting urgent procedural actions, including sanctioned searches, as part of a criminal investigation that was initiated previously," KNAB said on its website.

"The criminal case contains information that an official of the Ogre County Council allegedly misappropriated the municipal funds by using a fake sick leave certificate issued by a medical doctor. As a result of the fraudulent activities carried out in February this year, the municipality suffered a loss of at least EUR 855.71," KNAB said, adding that one person was currently in custody, though it did not name the individual.

However, according to unofficial information obtained by Latvian Radio, the detainee is mayor Egils Helmanis of the National Alliance political party and may also be related to a trip he took to the United States.

In the evening, Helmanis' lawyer confirmed that he had been released from detention and suggested the matter was the result of a mix up.

The National Alliance positions itself as being tough on corruption but now finds itself embroiled in another controversy involving one of its best-known members in addition to an ongoing scandal around Rīga city councillor and former government minister Baiba Broka.  

Helmanis himself is a controversial figure who demanded before municipal elections that local journalists sign a document agreeing not to pry into his private life.

Earlier this year he was in conflict with Latvian Radio journalist Edgars Kupčs, who in an investigative report uncovered highly questionable practices in a tender for Ogre municipal vehicles that seemed to rule out everything but high-line luxury models with a lengthy range of optional extras. Helmanis demanded the story be retracted from both Latvian Radio and LSM (it was not) and said that "as chairman of the council, of course I knew and accepted the planned purchase of economy-class cars, but my responsibilities do not include the technical side of preparing procurement documents, including the inclusion or exclusion of certain technical parameters."

Helmanis is also a martial arts instructor and in 2016 said he had trained members an anti-immigrant vigilante group.

It is not his first brush with the law. Ten years ago he was charged with being part of an extortion racket, and after another of Latvia's interminably protracted legal cases was convicted in April this year, though the case is now in the appeal court. Helmanis stated throughout that being charged with extortion would not interfere with his duties on Ogre council.

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