The Bulgarian Ministry of the Interior breached the terms of a grant agreement by using European Union money to buy SUVs from older stocks instead of new all-terrain police cars, according to an investigation closed recently by OLAF, the European Anti-Fraud Office, the office said on February 1.
OLAF has recommended the recovery of nearly six million euro in European funds and that criminal proceedings could be considered against officials of the Interior Ministry.
The episode took place at the time that Plamen Uzunov was Interior Minister in the caretaker government appointed by President Roumen Radev and headed by Ognyan Gerdzhikov and that was in office from January to May 2017.
Uzunov currently is Radev’s secretary for anti-corruption. Uzunov was arrested in July 2020 on an unrelated charge in connection with alleged trading in influence. He has denied wrongdoing.
Earlier, when then-interior minister Mladen Marinov ordered an investigation into the acquisition of the vehicles, Radev’s office said that the process of the acquisition had begun before Uzunov took office and concluded after he left office.
Uzunov also was caught up in controversy in 2017 when photos emerged of him having attended a party four years earlier dressed as Adolf Hitler. He rejected calls from Bulgaria’s governing party for him to resign from his post at the presidential administration.
OLAF’s investigation began in July 2018 following allegations of fraud and the misappropriation of EU funds from the EU Internal Security Fund grant agreement managed by the Bulgarian Ministry of Interior.
The agreement concerned the delivery of 350 all-terrain vehicles for use by the police.
During the course of its investigation, OLAF collected and analysed all the relevant documentation from the Bulgarian Ministry of Interior and interviewed all the key participants in the preparation and implementation of the tender. All parties concerned in the investigation cooperated fully with OLAF’s investigators, the statement said.
OLAF discovered that the Ministry of Interior had breached the provisions of the grant agreement by unilaterally changing its conditions. In particular, the Ministry opted to purchase a number of SUVs (sport utility vehicles) instead of the all-terrain vehicles that were the subject of the grant agreement.
OLAF also concluded that there were grounds to believe that a criminal act (abuse of power under the Bulgarian Penal Code) affecting the financial interests of the EU could have been committed by officials of the ministry.
The investigation was closed by OLAF in December 2020 with recommendations to the European Commission (which manages the fund) to recover 5 948 569 euro.
Further recommendations were made to the Bulgarian Prosecutors’ Office to consider opening a criminal investigation for abuse of power to the benefit of a third party.
“It is for the competent EU and national authorities to examine and decide on the follow-up of OLAF’s recommendations. All persons concerned are presumed to be innocent until proven guilty in a competent court of law,” OLAF said.
Ville Itälä, OLAF Director-General, said: “Manipulated tenders allowing potential fraudsters to line their own pockets at the expense of citizens is a typical fraud pattern seen by OLAF’s investigators all too often.
“It is all the more worrying when such a vital public service as the police could have been the victim of this sort of activity, and I urge the Bulgarian Prosecutor’s Office to give proper consideration to our recommendation of legal action. This would send a clear message that nobody is above the law and that OLAF and its partners across Europe will continue to work tirelessly to protect European taxpayers’ money,” Itälä said.