LONDON — Latvia’s top banking official and key member of the European Central Bank was detained Sunday after being questioned for hours by anti-corruption authorities amid accusations of bribery and money laundering in the nation’s financial system.
Latvian state TV showed Ilmars Rimsevics arriving at the anti-corruption agency’s offices on Saturday night and leaving in the middle of the night, following what the channel said was a raid on his office and property.
On Sunday, Latvia’s prime minister confirmed that Rimsevics, 52, was being detained, without providing further details. The anti-corruption agency, the Bank of Latvia and the European Central Bank all declined to comment.
Latvia’s president called for a meeting of the National Security Council to discuss the situation in the banking sector.
Rimsevics’ arrest is particularly sensitive because he sits on the top policymaking council of the ECB, Europe’s most powerful financial institution, and is privy to the state secrets of Latvia as well as those of NATO and the EU.
Any connections to money laundering, experts say, will raise concerns of the risk of blackmail from Russia, where the secret services and organized crime largely control the flow of illegal cross-border money transfers.
Latvia, one of the three Baltic nations that became independent after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, has a well-documented history of acting as a money laundering funnel for Russian capital.
Its own banking system has been plagued by corruption and money-laundering scandals in recent years. Among the most high-profile was the Magnitsky case, in which $230 million in Russian taxpayers’ money was siphoned off by Russian officials, largely through Latvian banks, according to U.S. and European authorities. Whistleblower Sergei Magnitsky was imprisoned in Russia in 2008 and allegedly beaten and denied medical care, leading to his death.
In 2014, a trove of leaked documents, the so-called Laundromat reports, detailed how billions were sent from Russia through Latvia in the years 2011-2014. Latvian banks went through an independent audit last year, but soon after that, France fined a Latvian bank for money laundering.
This week, the U.S. Treasury told banks to not make dollar transactions with one of Latvia’s biggest banks, ABLV, which it said “has institutionalized money laundering.”
Rimsevics’ detention also comes as Latvian authorities have warned that Russia is actively trying to obtain state secrets from Latvian officials and is trying to weaken the U.S. and EU by, for example, interfering in the U.S. presidential election.
The banking scandal, meanwhile, could shake confidence in governance in Latvia, a small nation of 2 million people that is struggling to deal with Russia’s attempts to re-exert influence over the former Soviet satellite state.