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Tuesday's papers: Brother Christmas, church taxes and parachute pensions

The press on Tuesday look at the affairs of a charitable fundraiser, looks at where church taxes go, and asks if some MPs "parachute pensions" should be repaid.

Brother Christmas
Ari Koponen Image: Vesa Marttinen / Yle

"Brother Christmas" is a social media phenomenon who raises money for sick children by telling their stories and asking for help. He wears a white beard and delivers the toys and gifts in well-publicised visits to hospitals, taking poorly youngsters to concerts and on other outings while helping their families financially.

Over the weekend, Helsingin Sanomat published an investigation into the operation, which is led by "Brother Christmas" himself, Ari Koponen. The paper said there was a lack of clarity on the huge sums raised: some 962,000 euros in 2017, with expenses totalling some 920,000 euros. For comparison, the Finnish Red Cross raised some 3.5 million euros from donations and membership fees in the same period.

HS detailed two families whose terminally ill children had 'dream trips' paid for by Koponen after a fundraising campaign. The families' suspicions were raised when it turned out that much of the trip--hotel rooms, meals and so on--had been granted free by the businesses concerned. The only cost one family had was flights. Koponen told them that more than 20,000 euros had been raised for their child, but they did not see any of that money until the mother began to ask about it.

Koponen himself has responded to the story, sending a response to HS and doing interviews with other media, and on Monday he claimed to have been subject to extortion attempts

After he gave that interview, however, HS published screenshots of a racist message Koponen had sent, along with a message in which he calls a journalist and presenter a 'whore'. The paper also reported that Koponen had been banned from Helsinki hospitals after repeatedly turning up without permission. 

Church shells out for pensions

HS also runs a story about the financial health of the Evangelical Lutheran Church. The officially established church elects a new Archbishop on Friday, and the new leader will take over an organisation with around 3.9 million members.

Many of those members pay taxes, and the paper reports that much of that money goes to pay pension obligations. Some 23 percent of the 886 million euros collected in taxes in 2017, for instance, went towards paying the pensions of retired church employees. 

The church does shoulder considerable risk in its pension arrangements, however. HS notes that in the private sector, pension risk is pooled among private companies: if one goes bust, the others continue to pay into the same funds that pay the pensions. In the public sector, pensions are guaranteed by the right of the state to levy taxes.

The church has to hope that the recent spike in resignations from the organisation will stabilise--or it will have to rethink its pension provision. 

More pension problems

Ilta-Sanomat also runs a story about pensions, looking at the generous arrangements MPs enjoy when they leave parliament. Legislators elected before 2011 are eligible for 'adjustment pensions' of between 5,000 and 6,000 euros per month until they hit retirement age. They are supposed to deduct earnings from that figure, but that is something of a grey area.

Suvi Lindén, a former Communications Minister from the National Coalition Party, hit the headlines recently when she travelled to Kampala with a man looking to sell Finnish weapons systems to the Ugandan government.  Lindén runs a consultancy firm from her Oulu base, but still claims her parachute pension each month.

The firm turned over some 53,000 euros last year however, and although she didn't claim a salary she might be obliged to make pension contributions--which she didn't. IS asks pension fund managers about her obligations, and gets the response that it is a grey area, but they'll look into it if asked. 

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