An ultimatum from London:

Fibank: ”Take down the article about Dogan, Peevski, Borissov, tobacco smuggling and money for terrorism”

The bank is attacking Bivol through Cherie Blair's legal firm

First Investment Bank has threatened to take Bivol to court if by 5 p.m. today (i.e. 23 April) we have not taken down our article “Dogan, Peevski, Borissov, Bulgartabac, smuggling and money for terrorism.” This was announced in an official letter sent by a British legal firm, which was received at our editorial email address in the evening of 22 April.

Our article in question presents a confidential report by an intelligence service, according to which Bulgartabac, owned by Delyan Peevski and under guidance from Ahmed Dogan, has established a system for the manufacturing of cigarettes which are then smuggled into Iraq, Syria, Iran and Turkey. The illegal trafficking has served to enrich Bulgarian oligarchs in power, as well as terrorist organisations in the Middle East.

The report mentions FIBANK, stating the following:

“While CCB was collapsing, Ahmed Dogan, Delyan Peevski, their networks and their entourages moved altogether into another bank for their daily business, called First Investment Bank (FIBANK). Bulgartabac did the same.“

“FIBANK has a rather negative reputation due to suspected business with organised crime structures. FIBANK got under serious attack from investigative media accusing it of complicity in EU fraud schemes. Delyan Peevski’s business operations using FIBANK have also attracted a lot of derogatory content in the media. Thus FIBANK might experience a bank run in the future because of its growing public image of a “mafia bank”.

Dogan, Peevski, Borisov, Bulgartabak, smuggled tobacco and money for terrorism

The bank denies the allegations and threatens that if the article is not removed by 5 p.m. on 23 April, they will have it removed by court order and sue for damages. The letter also states that the bank will sue Bivol if other media reproduce the article.

A third attempt by FIBANK to silence us

This is not the first time our website has been attacked by FIBANK. In 2011 we published a diplomatic report released by Wikileaks and dedicated to some Bulgarian banks described as “rotten apples”. The report stated that FIBANK had non transparent offshore ownership and that it stood with one foot in legal business and the other

“in the shadiest recesses of the criminal world”.

We approached FIBANK for comment at the time but instead of replying, they issued a statement to the press, trying to smear our reputation. We use this opportunity to inform everyone that this is yet another attempt to discredit Bulgarian banks. It is also a direct attack against the existing system for bank supervision in Bulgaria. It is clear that this is another attempt to depict our country as a place for shady business dealings.

It can also be viewed as an attempt at racketeering: scrolling through the Bivol website we find that all kinds of credit cards are accepted there, with the clear goal of attracting financial support. Bulgarian media as a whole remained silent on the topic of the “rotten apples” but the latter did find a place in international press.

Several months later FIBANK joined an attack on Bivol by Corporate Commercial Bank (CCB) and several other banks, carried out via Bulgaria’s national bank (BNB). In a letter to BNB the four banks mentioned in the leaked diplomatic report – i.e. CCB, FIBANK, Investbank and Central Cooperative Bank – asked the central bank to exercise repression against us.

The case became widely known as “the four rotten apples against Bivol” and did not achieve anything but was added to the list of cases due to which Bulgaria is seen as a problematic country in terms of media freedom. In its current attack against us FIBANK has enlisted the services of British law firm Omnia Strategy. It was founded by the wife of former UK prime minister Tony Blair. Bulgarian lawyer Ivaylo Dimitrov is among the company’s associates.

The London legal firm clearly has quite a lot of experience working in Eastern Europe. In the Balkans
Omnia Strategy‘s services have previously been hired by two other “democratic states”, competing with
Bulgaria in the field of corruption and disregard for the rule of law, i.e. Albania and Serbia.

Bivol will not take down the article and we have alerted international organisations supporting the freedom of speech about this attack.

We do not see FIBANK’s actions as an expression of concern for the bank’s reputation but as a strategic lawsuit against public participation (SLAPP). The growing number of lawsuits of this kind is one of the reasons for Bulgaria’s low ranking in international media freedom surveys.

“A rotten apple” with the state as shareholder

Over the years Bivol has carried out several large investigations, which have revealed that FIBANK is issuing credit to offshore companies linked to its majority shareholders Tseko Minev and Ivaylo Mutafchiev, as well oligarchs Christo Kovachki and Delyan Peevski.

An overview of FIBANK‘s credit portfolio showed that the unemployed Cyprus citizen Georgios Georgiou is both a debtor of huge proportions to the bank and a persona under the controll of majority shareholders Tseko Minev and Ivaylo Mutafchiev. Another investigation uncovered documents confirming the link between Tseko Minev and the companies holding the concessions over state-owned skiing facilities in the mountains of Pirin and Vitosha, who have enjoyed a privileged treatment by state institutions for years.

A joint investigation with our colleagues from RISE Project (Bucharest, Romania) found that the bank was involved in the largest single case of EU funds fraud – 20 million euro siphoned off by Bulgarian gangsters with the help of FIBANK bank guarantees and companies registered under the name of straw persons also controlled by the bank.

In June 2016 Bivol published a confidential report by Bulgaria’s central bank (BNB) about the state of affairs at FIBANK:

BNB hiding secret reports about FIBANK‘s tragic situation.

According to BNB’s inspectors First Investment Bank lacked sufficient capital but at the same time had huge amounts of bad credit, about which it was trying to trick the central bank and cover them up by various accounting manoeuvres.

The report found a concentration of credit funds issued to interlinked persons or persons gravitating around FIBANK‘s owners. A “bank within the bank” had been created in Cyprus and was not being monitored by risk management. The report also discovered enormous financial exposure to offshore companies with untraceable ownership.

The bank did not pass the European Central Bank stress test and had to urgently replenish its capital but no volunteers for pouring money into it could be found. It was bailed out by the state through a financial injection of 140 million levs (BGN) for raising its capital. FIBANK shares were bought by the Bulgarian Development Bank (BDB), a state-owned credit institution, at twice their market value.

Reactions 

Bivol immediately received support from The Global Network for Press Freedom and the Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), which published statements on Twitter:

Up to the present moment only one political party has reacted to the latest attack on Bivol. Democratic Bulgaria MP Vladislav Panev, who is one of the coalition’s leaders representing the Green Movement (Zeleno Dvijenie), has called for solidarity with us on his official Facebook page.

“Serious pressure is being exerted for removing the article by Bivol about the smuggling of
cigarettes and other schemes orchestrated by the four-headed monster”.

Bivol has alerted the parliamentary commission for the investigation of the actions of Borissov’s government. Read and share, Vladislav Panev urges on his Facebook page. The current MP himself, together with attorney Albena Belyanova, has filed a number of cases, among which a complaint submitted to the Supreme Administrative Court, against the Borissov government’s decision to have FIBANK shares bought up by BDB at almost twice their market price.

Atanas Tchobanov

Nikolay Marchenko

Translation: Vassilena Dotkova 

***

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