Setback for Bulgarian Agri Minister’s Attempt at Transparency

by Атанас Чобанов

The new data on the Rural Development Program (RDP), released and published by the Bulgarian State Fund Agriculture (SFA), abounds with duplicates, omissions and hidden projects for nearly BGN 200 million, according to an analysis by Bivol. Thus, in reality, the efforts for transparency, supported by Agriculture Minister Dessislava Taneva, are being sabotaged. The most scandalous corruption projects, financed with European money, such as the infamous guesthouses, popped up precisely from the SFA’s “black box”. Obviously, the Fund, controlled by people close to the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS, the party largely representing the Bulgarian Muslim minority), continues to resist any attempt to independently monitor projects for which public information remains scarce.

Following the resignation of Rumen Porozhanov and the appointment of Dessislava Taneva as the new-old Minister of Agriculture and Food (she was a Minister of Agriculture in a previous government – editor’s note), Bivol again asked for up-to-date lists of the paid projects under the RDP 2017-2013 and the current program 2014-2020. However, we explicitly asked for the lists to contain the Unified Identification Number (UIC) of the companies as well, something that both Rumen Porozhanov (see here) and the Deputy Prime Minister of European Union (EU) funds Tomislav Donchev (see here) have declined to do until now.

A miracle happened on June 7 as the lists containing the UICs were published on the SFA website in PDF format, and the press office of Minister Taneva sent them to our editorial office in a machine-readable format – Excel files.

List of RDP 2007-2013 projects

On the SFA site

In machine-readable format PRSR_2007-2013

Projects List RDP 2014-2020

On the SFA site

In machine-readable format Dogovori_plateni_2014_2020

The presence of the UICs in the lists allows automated retrieval from the public Trade Registry of the owners of the companies and tracing connections with political figures, suspicious success in the absorption of EU projects, public procurement and other indicators of possible corrupt practices.

It is thanks to this complex and systematic data handling that the investigating journalists of Bivol have managed to expose dozens of cases of abuses.

Without the UIC information, data retrieval is not impossible, but it is very difficult because there are random or deliberate omissions in the names of the companies, errors and even the so-called “Corruption Cyrillic” – replacing the Cyrillic alphabet with its Latin equivalents, which hides the name from the automated programs and search engines. Therefore, one should take into account the merit of Minister Taneva, who during her previous term also tried to shed light on the “black box” of EU funds under the RDP, especially in the guesthouse sector.

State Fund “Sabotage”

The joy of this “breakthrough”, however, was short-lived, shows analysis of the data from the two files. Probably, in order to compensate for the loss in the battle for transparency, the Fund’s “dark side” has “cooked up” the data and has deleted key information, especially in the part about the current 2014-2020 period.

So, in reality, the SFA is sabotaging the turn to transparency by its principal – the Ministry of Agriculture and Food, unless, of course, there is no secret agreement for such an operation.

Hundreds of duplicate projects

First, it is not clear how many projects had been approved and funded for the current programming period. The file published by the SFA for 2014-2020 contains multiple duplicates. The total number of projects on the list is 6,949. Of these, 1,734 are commercial company projects, 740 of other entities with UIC – municipalities, associations, local initiative groups, places of worship and community centers, and 4,475 of private individuals for which there is no Unified Civil Code (Social Security Number – editor’s note) and who are identified with just first and last names.

However, the unique companies in the list are 1,209, the other entities with UIC are 386 (twice lower than the projects with their participation) and the private persons – 3,401.

A more detailed analysis shows that for the legal entities there are two entries for 124 identical projects, for 46 there are three entries for the same project, for 15 – four entries, for 10 – five entries, for eight – six entries, etc. and one project with even 14 identical entries.

For individuals, there are 650 people with the same first and last name and with the same subsidies that appear on the list more than once. While private individuals may have the same names, it cannot be done for UIC entities, of course, if the UIC numbers are correct.

Projects without a number or without a name

Another problem in sorting this data is the lack of a unique project identifier – the “Unique Registration Number” or URN. The SFA explicitly refused to provide it on grounds that “these attributes are internal to the State Fund Agriculture, identifiers, which only concern the Integrated Administration and Control System (IACS), access to which is not public“. Moreover – if Bivol has the URN, we could identify individuals indirectly, which, though it is unclear how exactly it can happen, is prohibited by the GDPR Personal Data Regulation.

The result of this discretion is that it is difficult to find out whether the duplicates are obvious mistakes or re-financing for the benefit of the same natural or legal person, which would be scandalous.

There is a large number of projects for which there is no description whatsoever, and it is unclear why the money has been granted. For the current programming period, there is no information about subsidies in the amount of BGN 136,593,072 for individuals and BGN 175.6 million for legal entities – a total of BGN 312 million for 3,881 projects.

For the previous programming period, 2007-2013, for a total of 14,837 projects it is not known what BGN 445 million has been allocated for. The absence of URN in the lists does not allow restoring the information on the projects from other public sources, which means that it is not about any protection of personal data, but about a planned and deliberate attempt to hinder the efforts of investigative journalists.

Projects for BGN 189 million are missing

Three years ago, under public pressure, the SFA published a list of guesthouses, which turned out to be incomplete. This became clear from a forgotten file on the Fund’s website – 31.12.2014_contracted_iuridicheski_lica.xls, in which there was more detailed data on projects funded by the end of 2014. Bivol then estimated that there were 1,224 projects more than the ones entered in the official list “Approved Projects under the RDP 2007-2013 by December 31, 2015”.

Why more than a thousand projects had been hidden during Porozhanov’s term remains unclear, but from the very fresh data published on the site of the SFA, it is clear that the practice of hiding projects from public lists remains in place under the new Director Zhivko Zhivkov.

Bivol established that there are 246 projects total of which there is no trace in the just-published RDP 2014-2020 file (on June 7). They amount to more than BGN 189 million and almost all are for legal entities i.e. companies.

At the time of this publication, these projects could still be found in the reference tool on the SFA website, where one can (still) search by the name of a beneficiary with an approved grant. Only a few days ago, it was possible to search by UIC, but this possibility was quietly removed. Probably this happened after we were able to download and process all the information provided by this tool, including the UIC. Thanks to this database, we were able to find the differences with the June 7 list.

The conclusion is that more than three years after the first scandals and revelations by Bivol about fake guesthouses, duck farms without ducks, collapsing rural roads and other corruption projects funded by the EU under the RDP, we are again playing hide-and-seek with the SFA, against the backdrop of an outraged public. The modest progress is that the Minister now seems to be providing more, and the head of the SFA to be hiding less and in a more incompetent manner.

Whether this is true, it is premature to say, because we have witnessed many times the staging of “the good, bad cop” game. However, it is increasingly obvious that the black box of the DPS-controlled corrupt piggybank will not surrender without a fight in which we will have to rely on Brussels again.

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