The European Union Operational Programme “Science and education for smart growth” is about to be stopped in Bulgaria because of numerous irregularities identified by Brussels’ auditors. Interim payments are frozen until the irregularities are removed, and the European Commission is threatening it will suspend the program.
The warning letter to the Bulgarian authorities, under number Ares (2017) 721863, was sent on February 8 but Bivol has its draft text that was prepared when Boyko Borisov was still Prime Minister of Bulgaria. It is addressed to the Director General “Structural Funds and International Educational Programs” at the Bulgarian Education Ministry, Tsvetana Gerdzikova, the Director of the Executive Agency “Audit of EU Funds” Lyudmila Rangelova and the head of the certifying authority Manuela Milosheva.
It is indicative that the new caretaker Education Minister prof. Nikolay Denkov immediately demanded the resignation of Tsvetana Gerdzikova***, of the Secretary General of the Ministry Krassimir Valchev* and of Deputy Minister Krassimir Kiryakov**.
Prof. Denkov was Deputy Education Minister in charge namely of the operational program, which he developed in 2012 and that was approved by Brussels. When Meglena Kuneva became Education Minister, she took the portfolio from him, transferred it to Kiryakov and Denkov resigned.
Brussels audit finds “significant deficiencies”
The findings in the letter are devastating. They are listed an audit inspection N° REGC214BG0033 (EPSA) of the EC, conducted from 24 to 28 October 2016.
According to Bivol sources, the letter was to be sent on January 21, but it was delayed in order to avoid the impression that the EC is freezing funds for the center-right government of Borisov. The same sources argue that Borisov has called “his friend” Juncker (EC President Jean-Claude Juncker – editor’s note) to stop the unpleasant message and the process of signing the letter by the coordinating EC directorates had been stopped at the eleventh hour, while the forthcoming report under the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism (CVM) had been the formal occasion.
European Commission spokeswoman Mina Andreeva categorically denied these allegations and said that Borisov and Juncker have not held any discussions on the topic.
“Borisov’s EU funds” are also frozen
The findings of the audit mission are, however, a fact and the poor management of the operational program under Meglena Kuneva cannot be disguised and attributed to the caretaker government.
After the above publication, we received an email on our editorial email address with the position of the Education Ministry. In it, caretaker Education Minister prof. Nikolay Denkov confirms receipt of the EC letter, stressing it clearly explains the problems associated with, both, the systems for management and control of the program and the conducted competitions. He also notes that he is not surprised by the findings and the critical tone of the letter.
“They are the logical consequence of the way the program was managed last year. In April last year, I warned publicly that the change in the approach to the operational program will lead to problems. I was not heard. In fact, that was my reason to resign as Deputy Education Minister,” the letter reads.
Minister Denkov further explains that together with the European Commission and in coordination with the team of the Deputy Prime Minister for European Funds, his Ministry is already preparing an action plan to address the issues as soon as possible. He stresses that he is of the opinion that Tsvetana Gerdjikova is directly responsible for some of the problems; therefore, he was expecting her resignation.
*The Chief Secretary of the Ministry Krassimir Valchev contacted us after the publication and stated in a right of reply that he had decided to leave the post on his own initiative and before the caretaker government was appointed, and this had nothing to do with the operational program.
** The press office of the Education Ministry also contacted us to clarify that the resignation of Deputy Minister Kiryakov had not been officially requested.
***On Sunday, Tsvetana Gerdzhikova also sent a position to our editorial office, saying she was appalled by the official statement of Prof Denkov that she is directly responsible for the findings of the European Commission auditors and that this statement was in absolute contradiction with reality. She points out that at the time of the audit Ivan Modev (now Chief of Staff of Minister Denkov) was Director General “Structural Funds and International Educational Programs”, while until April 2016, Prof Denkov was Deputy Minister for the operational program, therefore, they should be held responsible.
Gerdzhikova confirms that during part of the said period she also worked in the department, but her functions and task at that time had not been related to the management of the operational program or the choice of evaluation committees that are the most strongly criticized by the auditors and that there are documents that prove it. She further notes that she has held the post of Director General only for two months, from December 1, 2016 (when Ivan Modev was transferred to another department) until February 1, 2017 (when she was hospitalized and her access to the work email was terminated).
“In those two months – with the support of the leadership of the Ministry – we developed a package of measures to address the shortcomings identified by the EC representatives during the audit mission. This package of measures and a list of all other urgent tasks were submitted to Minister Denkov and his team as soon as they took office. In short, I do not agree with being blamed and held liable for mistakes made by other managers,” Tsvetana Gerdzhikova writes.
This post is also available in: Bulgarian