Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov confirmed on Wednesday (September 14th) that eight EU-funded projects in his country’s southeastern town of Sliven have been suspended by the government over suspicions of fraud.
The financing for their implementation, totalling some 30 million euros, will remain blocked until “the whole situation … has been clarified,” he added, stressing that he had personally ordered the freezing of the aid.
Borisov said he decided to take that unprecedented move for his country after four or five members of his cabinet had shared with him in the past month or so their concerns about problems with the projects in Sliven, which is run by Mayor Yordan Lechkov.
Among them were Regional Development Minister Lilyana Popova and her predecessor, Rosen Plevneliev, who resigned earlier this month after Borisov’s centre-right GERB party nominated him as its presidential candidate in the October 23rd election.
Another was Bulgaria’s EU Fund Management Minister Tomislav Donchev, whose spokeswoman told the AFP on Wednesday that the “funds have been suspended since August while probing possible irregularities”.
“This is a preventive move on the part of the Bulgarian government,” she added.
A 27m-euro project for the reconstruction of 110km of Sliven’s water supply and sewage network is the biggest among the eight initiatives financed under the EU’s Regional Development and Environment operational programmes that have been put on hold.
In remarks to the state-run Bulgarian National Television (BNT), Donchev referred to allegations of violations of the public procurement rules in the selection of the contractors.
“The suspicions are that the procedure was discriminatory and undermined competition,” he said.
Borisov told reporters on Wednesday that the matter has already been referred to the prosecution and that the European Commission (EC) has welcomed the cabinet’s decision to freeze the funding for the projects.
Allegations of irregularities surfaced in mid-July, when a group of Sliven municipal councilors uploaded on the Internet a documentary with English subtitles, entitled “The New Mafia”.
They accused Lechkov, who has been running Sliven for the past eight years and hopes to be re-elected to a third mayoral term in October, of stifling competition in tenders for construction projects. The group said it had sent the documentation supporting their claims to Brussels.
The EC is preparing a letter to the Bulgarian authorities concerning the EU-funded projects in Sliven, Sofia-based online news portal Mediapool reported on Wednesday, citing Union Regional Policy Commissioner Johannes Hahn’s spokesperson, Ton van Lierop.
A former Bulgarian football star, Lechkov is GERB’s candidate for mayor of Sliven in the October local government elections. Borisov told reporters on Wednesday that unless wrongdoing has been proven, his party will not withdraw its support for him.
Announcing his nomination in early July, the prime minister noted that Lechkov has his “weak points,” just as anyone else, but that he would “fix” them during his next term.
Meanwhile, the BNT quoted Lechkov as telling reporters in Sliven that he was ready to present to the EC and other competent authorities all necessary documents, as well as his own position on the matter.
The mayor was tried on charges of abuse of office, but was cleared in March.