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EU Prosecutor Swings into Action Over Misused European cash in Bulgaria

European Public Prosecutor Laura Codruța Kövesi is finally turning up the heat on Bulgaria — long seen as one of the EU’s most glaring examples of Brussels’ impotence in the face of the theft of European funds.

On Thursday, the European Public Prosecutor’s Office (EPPO) raided 28 homes and offices as part of efforts to investigate the misuse of EU cash in railway projects, while the mayor of a small town was arrested Wednesday.

A reckoning has been expected for several years, with leading politicians from Bulgaria’s reformist camp arguing that the siphoning of EU funds has become one of the chief revenue streams of organized crime groups. The Center for the Study of Democracy, a nongovernmental organization in Sofia, concluded in 2020 that as much as 15 percent of the country’s EU money was regularly misappropriated.

EPPO is currently conducting 143 investigations in Bulgaria with “estimated total damages” worth a total of €492 million, according to its 2022 report.

As the EU’s poorest nation, Bulgaria regularly seeks infusions of support from European taxpayers to help build up its infrastructure and make its old Socialist-era buildings more energy efficient.

EPPO, which is in charge of prosecuting crimes against the financial interests of the EU, said it was investigating two projects for the upgrade of railway infrastructure, worth more than €241 million in EU funding, and a grant for improving the energy efficiency of residential buildings in the town General Toshevo, worth €169,000.

“Several witnesses and suspects will be questioned,” it said in a statement.

More than 100 agents from Bulgaria’s police and domestic spy service carried out raids Thursday in relation to the railway line between the towns of Kostenets and Septemvri, which received €130 million funding from the European Climate, Infrastructure and Environment Executive Agency (CINEA). Their raids also looked into potential abuse of funds on the railway between the villages of Orizovo and Mihaylovo financed by the Cohesion Fund for more than €111 million.

The use of Bulgarian security forces is a sign of how dependent EPPO is upon support from Bulgaria’s government and top legal officials. The government of Prime Minister Nikolai Denkov, which only came to power on June 6, has pledged to root out corruption and to ensure that the security forces are not steered by Russia. It is also significant that Ivan Geshev, the country’s highly controversial chief prosecutor, was forced out of office in mid-June as many Bulgarians had long seen him as an obstacle to investigations into top-level corruption.

The beneficiary of both the railway projects under investigation was the National Railway Infrastructure Company of Bulgaria, which awarded construction contracts to two private companies.

“The investigation uncovered facts that could constitute criminal offences, including misuse of EU funds and money laundering. The contractors are suspected of having made, in a short period of time, fictitious money transfers to a chain of hollow companies, which ultimately led to the withdrawal of cash amounts of more than €2.5 million by individuals with criminal records,” EPPO said.

On Wednesday, the mayor of General Toshevo in the country’s east, was arrested for presenting fake details regarding works on upgrading the energy efficiency of municipal buildings. He was released upon paying €5,000 bail, according to Bulgarian media.

While investigations into corruption are relatively common in Bulgaria, the country has conspicuously struggled to secure convictions of top-level criminals.

Source : Politico