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Bulgaria: EPPO probes into corruption and misuse of EU funding for restoration of Sofia’s historic centre

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The European Public Prosecutor’s Office (EPPO) is carrying out searches today, 31 March 2023, in Sofia (Bulgaria), in a probe into possible corruption and misuse of EU funds to restore the city’s historic centre, including its iconic yellow paved streets.   

The allegations under this investigation, code-named ‘Yellow Brick Road’, concern mismanagement of the funding allocated to Sofia’s city municipality to renovate the town’s old centre, co-financed by the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF), as well as possible corruption, with estimated damages of at least €3 million.

The EPPO started this investigation ‘ex officio’ in the autumn of 2022, based on media reports. Under examination by the EPPO are contracts signed between the municipality of the Bulgarian capital and two commercial companies, following public procurement procedures.

According to the investigation, a first contract was signed in 2018 for the restoration of the central area of Sofia (including Tsar Osvoboditel Boulevard and Narodno Sabranie Square). However, two years later, in 2020, when a number of payments had already been made, the contract was terminated by mutual agreement. The reason provided was the lack of compliance between the conditions of the contract and the investment project. It was also noted that the construction activities could potentially damage Sofia’s Central Military Club, built in 1907, which has historical value. Despite this, around €3 million (6 million leva) was paid to the contractor, without default penalties.

After the termination of this contract, the municipality signed a new agreement with a new contractor, under the same conditions. The new contractor requested advance payment of approximately €750 000 (1.5 million leva) to restore the century-old yellow paving blocks in the city centre, which are protected by Bulgaria’s Cultural Heritage Act. This amount has not been paid for the time being, pending examination of the situation.

However, the technical expertise requested by the Bulgarian Ministry of Regional Growth and Development determined that the cobblestones were poorly laid and there were also cracked paving blocks. The poor quality of the rehabilitation works of the iconic cobblestones, dating from 1908, along with the lack of checks by the city municipality, could potentially generate additional costs, according to the financial documents provided to the EPPO.

According to the investigation, falsified documents with untrue information were submitted by the contractors, certifying that the works had been carried out in accordance with the specifications, thus leading to undue payments being made.

Today’s searches and investigative measures are being carried out by Bulgaria’s General Directorate Combating Organised Crime (ГДБОП) in five locations. The police are looking to seize documentation and electronic evidence related to the implementation of the project, for the purposes of the investigation.