Lato Lapsa, a controversial Latvian investigative journalist with access to hundreds of pages of documents in a criminal investigation of politician and Ventspils mayor Aivars Lembergs, announced he was fleeing the country and shutting down his websites, including one that was a kind of Latvian "Wikileaks Lite".
Lapse told Latvian media that serious threats had been made against him and his sister and her chidren and he was leaving Latvia until at least October 3, the day after the national elections. He indicated he had been in touch with the Latvian Security Police (Drošības Policija/DP), but it was not clear whether the agency had advised him to close his websites.
The website www.rokasgramata.com published copies of what it claimed were bank statements, witness affidavits and other documents from the criminal investigation files concerning Lembergs, who Lapsa says skimmed some LVL 1 billion (almost USD 2 billion) that would otherwise have gone to the state treasury through various schemes, offshore companies and the abuse of political office and influence. The website has now been taken down.
Lembergs, who spent several months in investigative detention, has denied these charges and told a panel of journalists on Latvian television recently that he had sown the seeds of his large fortune (estimated at over LVL 100 million) by selling hunting rights for stags in Latvian forests to "wealthy Germans" during the last year of the Soviet occupation. After obtaining the local Soviet hunting trophy permits (Lembergs was a Communist Party official in Ventspils at the time), for a few tens of rubles (dollars), he sold them to the "millonaire" Germans for DM 10 000 (around USD 5 000 at the time) apiece. The politician, who has been in power in the port and, until several years ago, major petroleum transit city Ventspils since Latvia regained its independence.
Lapsa, often called a "notorious" investigative journalist with dubious methods of presenting his evidence, published, among other documents, the bank statements of Lemberg's adult children showing then spending large amounts on clothing and restaurants in Latvia and in European capitals, as well as handling deposits of millions of LVL. Lembergs says that, according to official income statements filed as a public official under Latvian law, he earned LVL 25 million in salaries, fees and dividends over the past three years, making him probably the most highly remunerated person in Latvia in any position, public or private (by contrast, the head of Lattelecom would have made less than LVL 1 million over the same three year period). Lembergs has denied all charges leveled against him and won a court case in which he was accused of wrongly and obstructively refusing to register a well-lnown public official because the man was not identified by personal code in a document from the Minister of Economics at the time.
Lapsa also shut down other websites, including those promoting his latest book on the politician Ainars Šlesers. Lapsa's methods in this and other "expose" books have been criticized. In the latest book on Šlesers, still being sold despite the website closure, he discloses that the politician's and former businessman's father was a mentally disturbed, abusive murderer who played only a short, traumatic role in Šleser's upbringing. He alsi claims that Šlesers, now the vice-mayor of Riga, evaded taxes on fish imported from Norway in the early and mid-1990s, events now beyond the statute of limitations for such violations.
Nonetheless, the silencing and temporary exile of "Latvia's most scandalous" journalist and the closing of his "Wikileaks Lite" websites by threatening the health or life of Lapsa's sister and her children has darkened the already strange and murky pre-election political and journalistic scene in Latvia. It strongly suggests that powerful, criminal interests are involved in the struggle for political power, setting Latvia apart from other Northern European countries where dirty politics, while hardly non-existent, never reach such an intensity.