'THE NEW TIME' HAS LOADED CROWN AGENTS WITH MONEY
Stipulations of the contract between the Finance Ministry and the British consulting company Crown Agents (which has been so far jealously kept secret), published in the press this week (obviously without the permission of the involved parties), caused a mighty shock. Its epicentre was in the triangle - Finance Ministry, Customs Agency, and Crown Agents. It becomes clear from the quoted provisions that 'the new time' has loaded the British consultants with money against their hollow promises for a steep rise of customs revenues from dues and taxes. The contract with 'the crown's agents' was published in the press a day before Finance Minister Milen Velchev's return from New York. Finance Ministry's insiders claim that the document is being kept in a safety box in Mr. Velchev's office as a precious relic, and the publication of some of its provisions is quite shocking.Will Crown Agents justify the confidence of Bulgarian authorities? This question was asked by the BANKER back on December 8, 2001, a week after the scandalous contract was signed on November 29, 2001. The document stipulated the establishment of a Council on Reform at Customs Offices, including 16 foreign experts, entrusted to consult the managerial team of the Customs Agency. Morris Campbell, a former officer of the British intelligence service, was appointed Chairman of the Council. The consultative body was to be headed by a 5-member Board of Directors (BoD), which presently includes Peter Pigdon, Director of Legal Issues. The other BoD members have not been appointed yet. Jim Williams, Director of Organisazation and Management, is also employed at the Council. One more British expert arrived in Bulgaria in the beginning of February. He will be responsible for the customs' info systems.The BANKER weekly was the first among Bulgarian media to express doubts about the legality of the procedures for the choice of a consultant of the reform at the local customs. In Issue No 49, 2001 the BANKER published the price list of the British company's services, offered against the tidy sum of GBP8,132,000. The price of the deal includes all expenses for salaries, accommodation, transport, communications, and software. However, the Government omitted to inform Bulgarian taxpayers that the real worth of the contract is GBP10,830,000. It became known that the amount above the initially announced one was intended to cover the consultants' expenses for payment of taxes on their remuneration.Extremely disturbing are the clauses under which the State, i.e. the taxpayers, should pay to the British company the amount due for three years even if the contract is cancelled or announecd null and void in court. Moreover, the Finance Ministry is not allowed to cancell the contract unilaterally within a year after its entrance into effect.Presently, few people may remember that in its pre-election programme the National Movement Simeon II had promised that an eventual decision for letting foreign consultants into the Bulgarian customs would be preceded by wide public discussions. Practically, the issue was handled quite differently. On October 25, 2001 the Government held a secret meeting and authorized the Finance Minister to hold negotiations with the British company. The news was broken a week later by the press centre of the Finance Ministry. The contract itself was signed in the absence of Emil Dimitrov, Director of the Customs Agency, who went out of Mr. Velchev's office a few minutes before the ceremony.On February 5, 2002 the Government's press office added fuel to the fire by informing that the Governement had approved the contract with Crown Agents on the day of its signing. Looking at the 2001 calender it can be seen that November 29 was Thursday, the day of teh week when the Cabinet holds its regular sessions. However, no such item was on the agenda and it could not be included because Crown Agents' Executive Director David Philips and Milen Velchev signed the contract in the afternoon, while the Cabinet's meeting was in the morning.The fact that the Government did not venture, or more precisely was not willing to invite a tender under the Public Procurement Act, is disturbing, the BANKER commented two months ago.Art. 3, item 1 of the Public Procurement Act stipulates that the public procurement for managerial and consulting activities is mandatorily assigned through tenders. It is quite debatable if article 6 of the same act could be applied in this case, which stipulates that the provisions of article 3, item 1 are not effective regarding public procurement connected with the State's defence and security, or when their fulfillment requiers special security measuers. The National Audit Office (NAO) intends to inspect all public procurement in the Ministry of Finance, NAO's Chairman Georgi Nikolov announced after clauses of the scandalous contract were published.Meanwhile, MPs from the opposition warned that the choice of Crown Agents may cause considerable problems in Bulgaria's negotiations with the European Union regarding Chapter 25 - Customs Policy. The BANKER has at its disposal a letter dated December 20, 2001 from the Enlargement Directorate of the European Commission, addressed to Milena Kuneva, Chief Negotiator on the Bulgarain side. The letter notifies the Bulgarian authorized bodies that the Directorate will revoke the implementation of the project for border and internal control because it re-covers the contract with Crown Agents. Under the project, worth a total of EUR3MN, the Bulgarian Customs Administration was to be granted seven automobiles, intended for the mobile customs teams. Under the contract with Crown Agents, the vehicles will be eleven and the money for their purchase is included in the amount of GBP8,132,000. The automobiles will be used by Crown Agents' experts during their 3-year operation in Bulgaria, and will be after that inherited by the Customs Agency.