Latvia loses case to suspend indicted ECB official

An orange sky is seen over the banking district of Frankfurt, Germany, on Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2019. (AP Photo/Michael Probst)

LUXEMBOURG — The European Union's top court on Tuesday overturned Latvia's decision to suspend a member of the European Central Bank while he is investigated for alleged bribery in a scandal that has shaken the country.

The EU Court of Justice said that Ilmars Rimsevics, the governor of the Bank of Latvia and a member of the ECB's influential rate-setting governing council, cannot be kept from performing his duties.

Latvian authorities had blocked him while they investigated him on charges of taking bribes. Rimsevics has denied any wrongdoing.

The case is a first for the ECB, which oversees monetary policy for the 19 countries that use the euro, as it has never before had to go to court to get one of its top executives restored to office pending a trial. An ECB spokesperson said only that the bank "took note of the decision."

Rimsevics and the ECB had argued that central bankers should only be suspended when convicted of a crime. The court said Latvia did not present enough evidence for Rimsevics to be suspended immediately, before a trial begins.

The court's ruling is not about whether Rimsevics is guilty, but whether his suspension is lawful.

Latvian prosecutors charged Rimsevics in June with accepting bribes — including 500,000 euros ($580,000) and a paid fishing vacation to eastern Russia — from a local bank in exchange for helping it with the financial regulator. Two shareholders in the now-defunct Trasta Komercbanka reported the case to law enforcement authorities.

Another banker, Grigory Guselnikov, has leveled similar accusation against Rimsevics, including that he was asked to launder money from Russia.

Latvian Prime Minister Krisjanis Karins said he was "worried about" not getting the case to court.

"As head of the government, I am more interested in ensuring fast, effective and fair trials," Karins was quoted as saying by the Baltic News Service, the region's main news agency. "I therefore want to know what should be done to improve the system."

The case is part of a wider scandal around banking in Latvia and the Baltics, with the U.S. government last year accusing one bank, ABLV, of institutionalizing money laundering and bribing Latvian officials. The bank collapsed.

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