Senior Bulgarian judge indicted in EU funds embezzlement probe

Written by on April 28, 2014 in Bulgaria - Comments Off on Senior Bulgarian judge indicted in EU funds embezzlement probe

Bulgarian prosecutors indicted the head of the Sofia Court of Appeals, Vesselin Pengezov, on April 28, in a lawsuit that may soon also result in the indictment of the Prime Minister’s chief of staff, reports said.

Pengezov was summoned to the office of the State Agency for National Security (SANS) to formally receive the bill of indictment, with the prosecutor’s office later confirming that he faced charges of malfeasance in office (for allegedly bypassing public procurement regulations), embezzlement and document fraud.

Charges have also been pressed against Petko Petkov, head of the Military Court of Appeals, whom Pengezov allegedly assisted in embezzling the funds from a project to develop an integrated IT system for the Bulgarian military courts, funded under European Union’s operational programme for administrative capacity. The prosecutor’s office did not specify the exact amounts, but media reports put the figure at an estimated 181 000 leva.

The project was awarded funding in 2008, when Pengezov was head of the Military Court of Appeals. He was elected chairperson of the Sofia Court of Appeals in 2009 and was succeeded at the military court by Petkov, who oversaw the final stages of the project’s implementation.

No further charges have been pressed yet, but reports on April 28 said that Maria Divizieva, currently chief of staff to Prime Minister Plamen Oresharski, was expected to be indicted soon. Several other people involved in the project could also face charges, according to Pengezov, who said that he did not recognise the names but suspected that these were the people who had won the IT contracts.

Divizieva was deputy public administration minister at the time (in the cabinet of socialist leader Sergey Stanishev, when Oresharski was finance minister) – and ex officio in charge of the EU operational programme for administrative capacity. She is believed to have assisted Pengezov and Petkov with advice how to perpetrate document fraud, news website Mediapool.bg reported, citing unnamed sources in the prosecutor’s office.

Pengezov said that he would take charge of his own defence, comparing himself to former Comintern general-secretary and later Bulgaria’s first post-World War 2 leader Georgi Dimitrov, who had conducted his own defence at the Leipzig Trial when accused by Nazis of setting fire to the Reichstag in 1933.

Pengezov said that it was unclear which court would hear the lawsuit, listing the military court, the specialised anti-corruption court and the Sofia City Court as possibilities.

When news of Pengezov’s impending indictment broke last week, he said that the lawsuit was politically motivated, claiming it was meant to prevent him from running for a second term as chairperson of the Sofia Court of Appeals. (Petkov too was in the running for a second term as chairperson of the Military Court of Appeals.)

This prompted a reaction from Prosecutor-General Sotir Tsatsarov, who denied the allegations.

Pengezov also accused Movement for Rights and Freedoms MP Delyan Peevski, whom he described as a power-broker, of attempting to influence the outcome of some lawsuits heard by the Sofia Court of Appeals.

(Media mogul Delyan Peevski’s appointment as director of SANS in June 2013 sparked months of anti-government protests last summer, despite Parliament’s quick decision to cancel the appointment. Subsequent challenges against Peevski’s right to sit as an MP were all denied by the country’s Constitutional Court amid much criticism.)

Pengezov is no stranger to controversy – in 2009, when he Supreme Judicial Council elected him chairperson of the Sofia Court of Appeals, despite competition from two long-tenured judges from the court, this sparked protests from the other judges in the Sofia Court of Appeals, supported by the judges union. The European Commission also criticised the lack of transparency.

At the time, allegations were made that Pengezov had tried to influence the outcome of court cases, but the charges could not be investigated because the statute of limitations had expired.

In 2010, Pengezov made headlines for the investigation against him – the same one that has now resulted in charges being pressed – but also when it emerged that the children of five senior judges (including Pengezov’s daughter, Anna) had been granted lucrative plots of land in the town of Primorsko on Bulgaria’s Black Sea coast at extremely low prices by exploiting a legal procedure aimed at helping the underprivileged.

(Vesselin Pengezov. Screengrab via Bulgarian National Television.) 

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