A year after news broke out of unlawful exploration in the vicinity of the soon under construction Struma highway, a number of important questions are still pending.
On 11 February 2019, national TV channel bTV aired a report, prepared with the expert assistance of the Anti-Corruption Fund Foundation (ACF), about the existence of seven kilometres of illegal temporary roads and exploration wells in the vicinity of the Krupnik-Kresna section ( lot 3.2.2) of the future highway. The estimated price for this part of the construction project is BGN 517 million.
The illegal roads and wells have been executed in the summer of 2018, well before the completion of the procurement procedure to select a contractor, and even before the announcement of the procurement order to design of a technical plan for the construction of that section of the highway.
After the bTV report aired, the company Patproekt 2000 OOD, managed by Lyuben Simeonov Engr., declared it had completed 20 exploratory wells on its own initiative and without commissioning from the Road Infrastructure Agency (RIA), the procuring party in the highway construction project. According to Eng. Simeonov, the cost of the works, estimated at BGN 100,000, had been covered by the company itself.
Following the news report, the director of the Kresna Forestry State Enterprise was fired (since the illegal activities had been performed on the territory under his jurisdiction without his knowledge). In the meantime, the procurement order for the concerned section of the highway project is yet to be completed.
“One key question in the context of his project remains unanswered,” said Nikolay Staykov, investigative journalist and co-founder of ACF. “What did Patproekt 2000 do with the valuable geological information they obtained as result of the illegal exploration?”
According to Eng. Simeonov, the information, which is of major significance for designing the technical plan and for the constructing the highway section, has not been shared with RIA.
“What is the guarantee that Patproekt 2000 did not share this valuable information with any one of the participants in the procurement procedure, thus giving them a significant competitive advantage?,” said Mr. Staykov. “This issue questions the validity of the entire procurement procedure.”
In the course of the investigation, ACF discovered that Patproekt 2000 had performed illegal activities along the Struma highway as early as 2016. In the period 22 October – 6 December 2018, the company had built 24 wells for design project, which was only commissioned months later.
On 14 May 2019, ACF referred the case to the Sofia District Prosecution Office and the Blagoevgrad District Prosecution Office, calling for investigations of alleged crimes related to the destruction of forests in violation of the Forests Act and the Spatial Planning Act. ACF submitted evidence for potential violations of public procurement regulations with respect to two procurement procedures. There was also evidence for information leaks from RIA to private companies.
ACF urged the Prosecution Office to inspect the financial and banking documentation of Patproekt 2000, looking for transactions between the company and firms, participating in the procurement procedure. ACF also noted the existence of public information about connections between Eng. Simeonov and companies involved in the construction of other sections of the Struma highway.
The Blagoevgrad District Prosecution Office redirected the case to the Sandanski District Prosecution Office for jurisdictional reasons, and the latter redirected it to the Sofia City Prosecution Office. The Sofia City Prosecution Office decided not to instigate pre-trial investigative proceedings. ACF appealed this decision on 3 December 2019.
On 29 January 2020, the Sofia Appellate Prosecution Office upheld ACF’s appeal and quashed the decision of the lower Prosecution Office, declaring it incorrect and in contravention of the applicable law.
The Appellate Prosecution Office held that the quashed decision’s conclusion that there was not enough evidence pointing to a committed crime was rather premature.
“In this regard, the Prosecution Office should investigate the documentation related to the specified procurement procedure and should interrogate the public officials who took part in its execution”, reads the text of the decision. “Furthermore, Lyuben Simeonov has enclosed many written materials to the record of his deposition, which also remain without review.”
According to Boyko Stankushev, Director of ACF, the members of the organization are motivated by the decision of the Sofia Appellate Prosecution Office to direct further investigation of the case.
“Considering the substantial price tag of the project, as well as the significant amount of funds at RIA’s disposal, such cases should be investigated thoroughly and given the appropriate attention,” said Mr. Stankushev. “Conducting a comprehensive and transparent investigation is important in view of the EU Commission’s questions to the Bulgarian government regarding the Struma highway project, as well as the lack of trust of Bulgarian citizens in public institutions.”
In January 2020, instead of responding to the questions of the EU Commission, the government withdrew its application for European funding for the project.