Bulgarian State Fund Agriculture Provides Cover-up for ‘Guesthouse’ Violators

by Атанас Чобанов

The Bulgarian State Fund Agriculture (SFA) has found violations in the scandalous guesthouses program worth nearly BGN 38 million, but it refuses to say which specific projects are involved and for what amounts. It only announces that 288 projects have been reviewed, some of which have been subject to sanctions ranging from 5% to 100% for failure to comply with the business plan and the mandatory job creation.
The SFA grounds its refusal to provide the information in response to a journalist inquiry with the ongoing procedure of handing sanctions to the offenders, as they could be appealed. Only then, it would disclose the names of the sanctioned companies.

This secrecy of the SFA contrasts with the public inspections of guesthouses by the Ministry of Agriculture and Food, which Minister Dessislava Taneva carried out before the media. During this campaign, the inspected guesthouses were selected according to unclear criteria, and almost no violations were detected in front of the cameras and the microphones. Now, however, it turns out that the information about the actual offenders is secret.

Guesthouses for relatives

Bivol’s investigations into the topic began as early as 2016 with the revelation of how SFA boss Yanaki Chervenyakov’s mother-in-law had built a guesthouse for personal use in the Pirin mountain region. Chervenyakov was fired, reinstated by the Court, and fired again after the guesthouses scandal gained national prominence this spring as a consequence of the other scandal known as ApartmentGate.

So far, the only defendant in the guesthouses scandal is former Deputy Minister Alexander Manolev, for whom the Bivol and the site Blagoevgrad News revealed that he had built with European money a luxury villa with a mineral water pool for personal use. Numerous media investigations further showed that such sites, built and owned by officials, abound in many places across the country.

There was another impressive discovery by Bivol – that almost all guesthouses in the village of Borino belong to relatives of Mustafa Karadayi, leader of the party mostly representing the Bulgarian Muslim minority – Movement for Rights and Freedoms, (DPS). Mayors and relatives of mayors from DPS, the ruling party Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria (GERB) and the opposition Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) turned out to be “happy owners” of guesthouses, some of them used as intended and others as private villas.

Following the outbreak of the scandal, the Prosecutor’s Office launched probes into all sites funded with European money, with no other results so far than the indictment of Manolev. The SFA started a parallel check, but it was limited to the sites subject to monitoring which is a period of up to five years after receiving the financing.

Past perfect tense?

According to the SFA response, such had been the inspected 288 sites (under monitoring). The use of past perfect tense (in Bulgarian) maybe indicates that the monitoring period has expired before the serving of the sanctions. If this is the case, they will be easily dismissed on appeal in court.

In addition, sanctions for “failure to comply with the business plan”, as announced by the SFA, are also known to be easily dismissed in court. The sanctions should have been imposed for “failure to achieve project objectives”. Whether the sanctions have been specifically drafted so that they can be dismissed in court and the burden to be put on the State budget remains to be seen.

The purpose of these projects for family hotels and guesthouses is to create jobs and real accommodations in rural areas without developed tourism infrastructure. The authorities in charge could have easily verified whether the beneficiary intends to meet these objectives even before approving final payments. For example, by requiring proof of registration of the guesthouses as accommodation sites and of hired staff. This simple measure would have limited the abuses, but the-then SFA Director Rumen Porozhanov had not implemented it and during his term, the SFA had inspected only 1% of the sites.

The maximum funding under the guesthouse program is EUR 200,000 per site (BGN 398,000), but not all guesthouses have received the maximum amount. With sanctions worth BGN 38 million and 288 inspected sites, this makes an average sanction of BGN 131,944 per site. Most likely, however, the SFA had not sanctioned all sites.
One of the reasons for the secrecy surrounding the sanctioned guesthouse beneficiaries is the considerable number of individuals associated with the ruling GERB and the DPS, Bivol learned from its sources. For example, the Mayor of the town of Lukovit Ivan Grancharov from GERB must return BGN 30,000 – a modest amount, compared to the European funding of the non-refundable BGN 209,682 received by him.

Bivol again sent a request to the SFA for the immediate disclosure of the specific violator sites, the beneficiary companies and the amounts with which they have been fined. This latest request is under the Access to Public Information Act (APIA). In the case of refusal to provide this information, we will appeal it in court.

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