Mediapool Weekly: August 10 – August 16, 2019

Plamen Georgiev appointed consul to Valencia but Bulgarian citizens launch a petition against, TAD Group parent company to sue Bulgaria for reputation damage

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Plamen Georgiev appointed consul to Valencia. Bulgarian citizens launch a petition against him

Plamen Georgiev

Plamen Georgiev, the former head of the Anticorruption Commission was appointed as consul to Valencia, in a surprise move by Bulgarian authorities. Georgiev finally resigned his post at the commission after several-month long leave of absence, during which he was investigated for inconsistencies in his tax returns and for turning a common space in his apartment building into a terrace for personal use. He became one of the prominent cases in the so-called ApartmentGate scandal, which uncovered a number of instances of high-ranking officials striking real estate deals on a fraction of market prices.

When Georgiev handed in his resignation, he announced he plans to return to work as a prosecutor. The Supreme Judicial Council appointed him in the Specialized Prosecutor’s Office. Just four days later, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs appointed him as consul to Valencia.

Georgiev has no prior experience as a diplomat. The foreign minister, Ekaterina Zaharieva hasn’t given any reason for the decision, which arguably is hardly hers. A ministry official told the Bulgarian National Radio, that Georgiev is a good fit because he has had good working relations with law enforcement agencies in Valencia. The official did not elaborate or pointed to any concrete examples of when and how these alleged relations flourished. As an added bonus (which in the case of Bulgarian diplomats, it often is), Georgiev knew Spanish. According to his own resume, which he submitted to Parliament in 2018, he has completed level A2 Spanish.

As soon as the news broke, however, the Bulgarians living in Valencia reacted sharply. They launched a petition against Georgiev’s appointment, which by Friday 1:00 P.M. was signed by over 1800 people.

One of the authors of the petition told BNR that the protest against Georgiev is not motivated by the scandals in Bulgaria but is based on the lack of experience and knowledge one should possess in order to take such a post. Bulgarians in Valencia are also planning a protest when Georgiev arrives.

PM Boyko Borissov has a habit of appointing close former officials to diplomatic missions. And it seems Georgiev’s case is also in this tradition. It is unclear what prompted the decision mere days after Georgiev was appointed as prosecutor. For some reason, Borissov might have become concerned with public disproval of Georgiev and the way his case was processed, and ultimately decided to early-retire him abroad.

Whatever the underlying cause to pull back on the prosecution job, the care Georgiev receives by this government is evident of how important and serving he was during his time as head of the Anticorruption Commission. The body, tasked with fighting high level corruption has made no convictions or uncovers of corruption by anyone from those in power. Instead the commission under Georgiev has consistently gone after various groups and individuals, who for some reason are inconvenient to Borissov and his close allies. Of course, he deserves the post from that perspective. But Borissov has a weakness for protests, and he might think twice before sending him off to Valencia. He might even fold, but he will definitely find a suitable post for such an exemplary clerk.

TAD Group parent company to sue Bulgaria for reputation damage

The American owners on the company TAD Group will file a seven-figure lawsuit against Bulgaria for damage to their reputation. TAD employees from the company’s Bulgaria office, including the owner, Ivan Todorov, were changed and arrested with executing the unprecedented hack into the National Revenue Agency, and stealing the personal data of nearly every Bulgarian adult. The data became widely available after two news coverages (By NOVA TV and Evropa TV) showed the body of the e-mail by the self-proclaimed author of the hack, containing the link to where the data could be downloaded.

The prosecutors accused TAD employee Kristiyan Boykov for the attack, while his superiors face charges of abetting him. All of them deny having any connection to the hack and claim the evidence against them was planted.

Many have expressed concerns about the prosecutors’ case against Boykov and his bosses. Boykov claims further that he was pressured and threatened by his interrogators to confess.

Ivan Todorov’s lawyer told reporters about the parent-company’s intention to sue. Todorov is in custody, after the prosecutors and court decided he is a public threat, which according to TAD Group lawyers is just an effort to pacify the public’s reaction. This is the basis of the lawsuit, according to lawyers.

Regardless of whether the accused are guilty or not, however – and this is up to the court to decide – the prosecutors undeniably work extra hard to emphasize the gravity of the crime. In one such effort, prosecutors decided to upgrade the charges to terrorism, and even hinted that charges of treason are not out of the question. All this focuses the attention of the crime itself and pulls away from the much more serious question of the state of Bulgarian cyber security.

Because the problem is more complex: indeed, if the data was protected properly, the hack would’ve involved a very high skillset level, elaborate planning, coordination, etc. But it wasn’t. In all of the prosecution’s efforts to make it seem as though the hack itself was extraordinary, the more important aspect regarding how the state and government have been keeping this data safe gets ignored. Which is understandable, as experts say the National Revenue Agency’s cybersecurity is so weak and inadequate, a hack that would leak all the information it kept was only a matter of time.

Just a year ago, almost to the day, another state digital database broke down: the Trade Registry. The registry collapsed, a number of disks on the servers were damaged, along with backups. The registry was down for almost 20 days. The database is the key element in any business transaction in Bulgaria. It holds the documentation of all private companies registered in the country, as well as all non-profits. All deals, most transactions, including bank loans to firms, and reports must be recorded in the registry otherwise they are stuck pending. Media reports revealed meanwhile that the registry’s PR budget exceeds significantly the support budget for its systems.

A few weeks ago, the prosecution decided to make public a bundle of evidence from the TAD Group investigation. Which was questionable enough, but in doing so, prosecutors (may be by accident, maybe on purpose) released the personal data of all prosecutors and magistrates, including the national identification number of the prime minister.

Sufficed to say, the Bulgarian state has virtually no regard for cyber security. Its data is extremely vulnerable to attacks, even by low skilled cyber security professionals. And it seems that the prosecutors’ only priority in this case is to do whatever it takes to keep the public attention to the crime and charged, instead of the responsibility the government bares in keeping the data of its citizens safe.

In other news:

Incompetence and negligence led to a fire, which will shut down part of Struma highway for weeks

The government in the face of the regional office for the Ministry of Environment allowed for a temporary illegal dumping ground to operate under the highway. It caught fire on Tuesday, which was not extinguished till the next day. The fire caused damage to the pillars holding this part of the highway, which led to its partial shutdown for several weeks. The incident occurs at the busiest season of the highway.

According to officials, part of the dumping ground has a permit, part of it doesn’t. For one, it is unclear why the regional agency has permitted a dumping ground beneath the highway in the first place. According to the law the space under the highway should be empty. Second, once the company operating the dumping ground, Fenix Dupnitsa, filled the capacity it was allowed, it continued to expand it without any institution intervening.

Now that the damage is done, various institutions involved have begun to take action: The National Road Infrastructure Agency reported the Fenix Dupnitsa to the prosecution; the prosecutors swiftly brought charges and opened a case; the regional office for the Ministry of Environment has opened a procedure to take away the company’s license to operate.

But clearly, punishing the company after the damage is done will hardly fix the problem. Repairing the highway will cost millions, because an especially illegal dumping ground, with apparent government protection, caught fire. The company has received penal orders nine times for expanding the dumping ground beyond the permitted capacity, some are challenged in court and pending decisions.

The largest parliamentary opposition, the Bulgarian Socialist Party called for resignations regarding the incident. MP Georgi Svilenski held a press conference, essentially saying that even if the prosecutors, courts and the like establish criminal responsibility, there is also a political responsibility to be taken, which is just as crucial in this case.

Financial probe launched at the Food Safety Agency after reporting uncovered corruption scheme

The Public Financial Inspection Agency has launched an investigation into the Food Safety Agency. The audit was ordered by Prosecutor General Sotir Tsatsarov, after investigative journalist Genka Shikerova and the Anticorruption Fund released their investigative reporting piece A War for Corpses. It uncovered a scheme, whereby the agency redirected funds for disposal of animal corpses from working facilities with adequate capacity and experience to companies, which lacked both. As a result, Bulgaria was virtually incapable of safely disposing of tens of thousands of corpses of culled pigs due to the African Swine Fever outbreak.

The reporting reveals a number of public procurement violations with the contracts of the two new companies. In addition, the Food Safety Agency refuses to release information about how many corpses these companies have destroyed since March, 2018, having received 30 million leva in total from the agency. In fact, there is no evidence at all that these companies have taken any part in disposing of the culled pigs due to the African Swine Fever, nor in any of the other two outbreaks in recent years of Avian Flu and plague.

Most of Shikerova’s reporting was finished in September of last year when she still worked for NOVA TV but the network did not air it. She was recently fired, together with another investigative journalist, Miroluba Benatova, after NOVA was acquired by the infamous Domuschiev brothers, who are known to their close ties with the government.

After her firing Shikerova teamed up with the Anticorruption Fund to finish the story and they released it on YouTube.

Democratic Bulgaria announces candidate for mayor of Sofia

Borislav Ignatov

The non-parliamentary coalition of opposition parties Democratic Bulgaria announced its candidacy for mayor of Sofia: the architect Borislav Ignatov. The local elections will be held in the fall. Sofia has been governed by ruling party GERB for over a decade: by current PM Boyko Borissov and later by Yordanka Fandakova. Her candidacy both times seemed unbeatable but her administration was marked by a number of failed renovation projects over the past two years, most notably Graf Ignatiev.

Fandakova has not yet confirmed to run for a third term. The current national ombudsman, Maya Manolova has hinted many times she might run as an independent. Manolova will most likely get support by the Bulgarian Socialist Party. According to some preliminary polling, if both run, Manolova has the potential to win in the first round. Although these polls should be taken with a grain of salt, they show some significant initial support for Manolova.

The only other official candidacy for the moment if that of Boris Bonev, one of the co-founders of the organization Spasi Sofiya (Save Sofia). Spasi Sofiya is one of the most active critics of this administration, the way the recent renovations were done, its transport policy, etc. Democratic Bulgaria admitted they had talks with Spasi Sofiya to run with a joint candidacy but Spasi Sofiya ultimately decided against it because they did not want to be associated with a political organization.

During the announcement the co-leader of Democratic Bulgaria, Atanas Atanasov said “The corruptive governing model of Borissov’s state began in Sofia, and it is from here its demolition must begin.”

Democratic Bulgaria has the most support in the city of Sofia and from citizens living abroad. It got 16% of the votes in Sofia during the last European elections as opposed to 6% of the overall votes. The coalition will count heavily of these elections to expand its overall support and visibility and depending on the campaign, could realistically aim at getting to the second round of the elections.

DANS wants unlimited access to data of six-year-olds

The State Agency for National Security (DANS) wants to have unlimited 24/7 access to data bases, containing information about Bulgarian students. The data bases are maintained by the Ministry of Education and hold the data of anyone attending school, who can be as young as six.

It is unclear as to why DANS needs unlimited access to this kind of data. The request was filed under a provision in the law, which was enacted back in 2008 and states that ministries should provide access to their data banks to DANS.

Currently DANS has such an access to data maintained at the Customs Agency, the Ministry of Interior and the like. And it is likely the legislator had them in mind when composing the law, considering DANS’s line of work.

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