April 5, 2019 / 4:35 PM / 15 days ago

Mayor of Latvian capital suspended over suspected misuse of public funds

RIGA (Reuters) - Latvia’s government has suspended Riga mayor Nils Usakovs, who is also the opposition’s main candidate in next month’s European Parliament elections, on suspicion of misusing more than $20 million of public funds.

Usakovs, the leader of the pro-Russian Harmony party, denied any wrongdoing and said he would appeal.

“This is absolutely a pure, clear political decision,” Usakovs told reporters.

The Environmental Protection Ministry, which oversees Latvia’s local authorities, said that, as mayor, Usakovs had failed in his duty ensure public funds were properly spent, including 18.4 million euros ($20.66 million) related to the municipality’s public transport authority.

“The decision is about good governance in the public sector,” Environmental Protection Minister Juris Puce told reporters.

In December last year, Latvia’s anti-corruption agency, KNAB, detained seven people on suspicion of corruption at Riga’s traffic authority over the purchase of new trams, trolleybuses and buses.

At the end of January, KNAB agents also searched Usakovs’ office and home in connection with the procurement deal.

Usakovs told reporters on Friday he had not been notified by KNAB that he was suspected of any crime.

Usakovs is the first mayor of Riga of Russian descent. He has tried to rebrand Harmony as a Western-style Social Democratic Party, toning down the links to Russia and focusing on issues as education and social inequality.

It severed its official cooperation agreement with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s United Russia Party in 2017.

Reporting by Gederts Gelzis; Editing by Simon Johnson and Alison Williams

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