TROUBLED TIMES IN THE CUSTOMS
Since the Government of the three-partite coalition adopted its notorious working plan aimed at bringing Bulgaria in the European Union (EU), a considerable part of customs officers in Bulgaria
have been dreaming nightmares
The calmness of their dream was broken by the authorities' ambitious decision (taken under the pressure of the European Commission) to investigate those of them who demonstrate excessively affluent lifestyle.
First to get burned by the uncompromising actions of the cabinet were customs officers who worked at the Bulgarian-Turkish border. According to information the BANKER weekly learned, since mid-July the officers who work at the Kapitan Andreevo cross-border point have been monitored closely by members of the National Service for Fighting Organized Criminality, the economic police and the tax authorities sent from Sofia. The undercover agents arrived at the station in an old Chavdar bus with military registration and waited for potential illegal payments, witnesses said. In fact, the strict measures will soon be applied in other customs units which have become known for their shady affairs.
According to importers, the European puff can already be felt along the Bulgarian borders, as
under the table near the customs barrier has become almost impossible. The fact that money can be given during special meetings in near villages is another question. The nightmares of the officers who used to vegetate quietly so far are intensified by the forthcoming implementation of the one-desk payment principle. Bulgaria committed itself to introduce it by adopting the Integrated Cross-Border Management Plan last spring.
Finally, Bulgarian people might cry out if they have visited towns like Svilengrad along the borders at least once. This is where a maxim said by Boyko Naidenov, head of the prosecutors' special unit against bribes, (that corrupt people are best known for their lifestyle) is most valid. Stories about luxurious houses and fast cars that are part of many customs officers' lives are touching up in these parts of the country. It is cold comfort to the department led by Assen Assenov that workers in other cross-border offices such as Road Fees and Permissions, for example, can afford such luxurious lifestyle, too.
The action with counting customs officers' fortune and stalking by special agents would be rather praiseworthy if only it wasn't coming
Just for comparison - Turkey which is at the start of its negotiations with the EU implemented a fine campaign against corrupt state officers along its Bulgarian border late last year. As it became known by publications in the Turkish press, last December the local authorities installed cameras hidden in electric stoves at the Kapi Kule point. The commanding centre of the action was set in the minaret of the mosque situated close to the border. On the basis of the frames shot about a hundred Turkish customs officers were arrested and bills of indictment for 58 of them have already been brought to court. Romania is getting ahead in the fight against customs corruption, too. At the beginning of the year the country's specialized Department for Fighting Bribes started proceedings for the seizure of several of the most luxurious villas owned by customs officers in Gurgevo.
However, in Bulgaria dramas of the kind are still to happen (if they happen at all). It is absurd to think that a few months before the country becomes a EU member the local authorities can get down to work and save the customs from corruption in a day or two. No matter how unpleasant it may be for the so called responsible factors, they have to admit that precious time has been lost in the past few years for neutralization of the customs affairs.
Engrossed in chasing another record in the collection of duties and value-added tax, the Customs Agency Director Assen Assenov and his team seem to have forgotten about the fight against bribes in the customs ranks. If there was fight at all, it was led by measures such as adopting the Ethical Code which provoked spiteful reactions in the media or the obligation for submitting property declarations with unclear contents.
What is more
in the whirl of the scandal
there were often people who had been plainly launched by the customs managers. At the same time, the Crown Agents consultants took more than BGN64MN, all of them with the noble task to cope with smuggling and illegal payments in the customs. The agents never lost their leading position in the annual rankings of organisations like Transparency International and Coalition 200 of the most corrupt departments in the country.
Asked by a reporter of the BANKER weekly, Assen Assenov refused to comment in details on the ongoing inspections against his subordinates saying they were not over yet. In fact, according to the Government's plan, the term within which the Customs Agency and the prosecutors' office should present a report on the investigation expires at the beginning of September. Still, Assenov specified that his department submitted precious information to the prosecution.
However, according to the top customs officer in Bulgaria, no special attention should be paid to the campaign started in mid-July because there had been such inspections in the past, too. He probably referred to the actions of the customs inspectorate on the so called disciplinary proceedings. According to the department's last year report published in the INTERNET, about 1,150 internal investigations have been initiated. In 16 of the cases customs officers were even fired. But what is impressive here is the fact that small fry forms the main part of the black statistics of fired officers.
Asked to comment on this regularity, the customs director
asked the BANKER weekly
to provide him with a list of high-ranked people in a department whose property would be inspected. Leaving aside that newspapers should not do the customs inspectorate's job, Assenov's idea should not be underestimated. As to the making of the list, it may well include all men in the press publications in the past years associated with customs scandals.
The honour of the Sofia customs was defended by its former director Margarita Petsanova who is now on trial for unexercised control on the temporary import regime. Close to a trial is also Snezhina Angelova, ex director of Gorublyane customs bureau who was arrested with a bribe at the end of last year.
The directors in Plovdiv became notorious for their family business. Last spring, Assen Assenov fired the second man in the Plovdiv regional direction, Philip Klyashev, for... conflict of interests. It is a small detail that the conflict in question resulted from the two companies owned by Klyashev's wife, Yordanka Apostolova Klyasheva - Unisped Sole Trader and Unisped Ins. Accidentally, the companies occupied with... customs mediation. And this is not the end of the coincidences. The office of one of these companies is located on 32A Kouklensko shausse street - in the very building of the Plovdiv customs. The same company had the privilege to be included in the World Bank pilot project on the program for facilitating trade and transport in Southeastern Europe.
In the spring of 2004, the still acting head of the customs direction in Plovdiv, Pavel Tonev, was accused in public by a subordinate of his of having accepted illegally a bank guarantee worth just BGN30,000 (whereas BGN100,000 was the amount owed) in favour of the Pazardzhik-based Toyota Tixim EOOD. The company's division in Plovdiv was run by Tonev's wife, Vanya - apparently by accident again.
in the customs is not a Plovdiv patent at all. The former head of Varna regional customs direction and consultant in the Crown Agents team, Roumen Kirchev, gained fame with his wife's business, too. Bel TT in which Mrs. Kircheva was a partner at first and after the re-registration became an ordinary officer was long a monopolist in the formalisation of import through the seaside customs. Roumen Kirchev's son, Ivan Kirchev, was in turn a representative of Bessin AD which assisted the sugar importers through Varna.
The media sometimes dedicated attention to the heads of the cross-border stations Kulata and Kalotina because of the smuggling channels used by Nikolay Metodiev-Pileto which were broken in 2004. Despite the revelations of the Ministry of Interior on the affair, Stanislav Pavlov, Yordan Koulev and Tsvetan Suev who directed these customs in the period when the channels were used remained in the system. Among the officers whose appointment was debated was also Kalotina's deputy head Ivan Kozhuharov who is Assen Assenov's family relative. Kozhuharov's former subordinates accused him in a TV interview in 2003 of having ordered them to pass trucks carrying smuggled goods without inspection.
In that case we should ask - instead of starting the customs inspection from the Turkish border, isn't it proper to begin from the agency's headquarters on the Sofia Rakovski street?