Corruption, Europe, New in Lobbying

Bulgarian alcohol empire accused of ripping off EU funds hires US lobby shop

The wife of a Bulgarian alcohol magnate accused of siphoning $10 million in rural aid from the European Union has hired a Washington-area lobbying firm to raise doubts about the fairness of the Balkan country’s justice system.

Reni Staykova, the wife of imprisoned businessman Minyu Staykov, has hired Alexandria Group International to lobby Congress and the executive branch, including the US Embassy in Sofia. The firm is expected to raise concerns about “human rights and civil liberties, as well as the state of and developments regarding the business climate, civil society, corruption, transparency, the judiciary, and the overall rule of law in Bulgaria.”

The contract is for $26,000 for the six months through April 30, for a total of $156,000. The firm received the first half on Oct. 21.

Managing partner Marshall Harris, a former State Department official who worked in Bulgaria and was later vice president at Freedom House, signed the contract. Joining him on the account is senior political adviser Zorica Maric Djordjevic, a former Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of Montenegro.

The firm previously signed another contract for the same amount and duration this summer with the owners of the Prista Oil motor oil company. Bulgarian authorities in May charged the two brothers running the company, Plamen Bobokov and Atanas Bobokov, as part of an investigation into the illegal import and export of hazardous waste.

In an interview with Foreign Lobby Report, Harris said he’s been approached by several Bulgarian companies seeking help with what they insist is a predatory state under Prime Minister Boyko Borissov. He said his work has turned into a “multi-pronged representation,” with outreach to both US and European Union policymakers.

“The thing that was new to me was this concept of state criminal capture of enterprise,” Harris said. “Corruption takes many forms … but Borissov’s contribution to this world of crime is the prosecutor general’s office; this is the vehicle by which they carry out their crimes and they keep people in line and intimidate them.”

In recent months Bulgaria has been rocked by mass protests from anti-corruption demonstrators worried that the former bodyguard-turned-politician has allowed an oligarchic mafia to take control of the country. The Balkan country had the worst perceived level of corruption of any European Union nation in the most recent Transparency International index.

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Staykov is the owner Vinprom Karnobat, Bulgaria’s largest wine producer. He has been incarcerated since May 2018 despite reports that his health has deteriorated after he suffered a stroke.

Staykov’s troubles started in 2018, when he was charged with tax evasion and money laundering. Last year he was additionally charged with conspiring with family members and business associates to apply for some $10 million in funding from European Union programs for poor rural regions while concealing their real beneficiary.

Bulgarian authorities insist that Staykov’s alleged crimes are real and that the EU’s anti-fraud office “fully confirms” their conclusion that he criminally accumulated significant EU funding.

Lobbying disclosures indicate that in July and August the Alexandria Group contacted staff at the US Embassy in Bulgaria, the House Foreign Affairs and Senate Foreign Relations committees, and the Helsinki Commission to draw attention to what it called the “state criminal case” against the Bobokov family.

Over the summer, the firm also distributed a 13-page “case narrative” that accuses Prime Minister Boyko Borissov of attempting a “criminal capture” of legitimate businesses’ “assets and future earnings.”

“Unless the United States and the major European powers persuade Borissov and his coterie to cease their criminal acts and restore democracy and a civil society in Bulgaria, the Bobokovs’ and other business owners’ investments in U.S. and western European jobs and other contributions to democratic societies will be lost,” the Alexandria Group document states.

This post has been updated with comment from Marshall Harris.