A media tycoon and lawmaker with close ties to the Bulgarian government is getting a hand from a lobbying powerhouse amid increasing US attention to endemic corruption in the Balkan country.
Bulgarian law firm Aviora Consult has hired the BGR Group to help its client Delyan Peevski with “issues in the US,” according to a new lobbying contract dated Dec. 9. The agreement is for $30,000 per month for six months.
BGR will provide “strategic guidance and counsel with regard to government affairs and public relations activity within the US.” This may include “outreach to US government officials, non-government organizations, members of the media and other individuals.”
The contract says the BGR team will consist of two people. Handling government affairs efforts is managing director Tom Locke, a former FBI official who handles relations with law enforcement agencies and the Treasury Department, which oversees sanctions. Overseeing public relations is BGR PR President Jeffrey Birnbaum, a former Wall Street Journal reporter and Washington Post columnist. Birnbaum, who is currently the only registered agent on the account, did not respond to a request for comment.
Peevski, a member of the Movement for Rights and Freedom (DPS) widely known as “potbelly” because of his size, has been the object of fierce criticism from anti-corruption groups and Bulgarian protesters. Facing the largest demonstrations in years, Prime Minister Boyko Borissov this summer dumped four ministers amid accusations that Peevski and other oligarchs were pulling the strings behind the scenes.
BGR previously represented Peevski’s interests from September 2017 through Dec. 31, 2019. At the time a former banker named Tsvetan Vassilev had launched his own lobbying campaign to impose human rights sanctions under the Magnitsky Act on Bulgarian officials.
Vassilev claimed that government accusations that he and his associates embezzled more than $1.5 billion from Bulgaria’s failed Corporate Commercial Bank (Corpbank) were a plot led by Peevski and chief prosecutor Sotir Tsatsarov. His lobbying push, led by Washington consulting firm Jefferson Waterman International (JWI), ended last year with the US government to date declining to impose Magnitsky sanctions on Bulgarian officials.
BGR reported just over $900,000 in fees and expenses from Aviora Consult between 2017 and 2019, according to a Foreign Lobby Report review of lobbying filings. Birnbaum was also registered on the account at the time, along with BGR Principal Mark Tavlarides. Records show they interacted with numerous House and Senate staffers as well as Roderick Moore, a former deputy chief of mission in Bulgaria who was then the State Department’s special adviser on anti-corruption, as well as Bulgaria desk officer Coco Downey.
This time around Peevski is once again facing accusations that he is driving government actions targeting private businesses.
Several Bulgarian business owners, including the Bobokov family behind the Prista Oil motor oil company and the wife of a detained Bulgarian alcohol magnate, have recently hired former State Department official Marshall Harris and his Alexandria Group International to raise the alarm with US policymakers over what Harris calls “state criminal capture of enterprise” in the country.
The Bulgarian government accuses the Bobokovs of illegally importing and exporting toxic waste. Winemaker Minyu Staykov for his part is accused of siphoning $10 million in rural aid from the European Union.
“I’d describe [Peevski] as the oligarch-in-chief of the Borissov regime,” Harris told Foreign Lobby Report. “The people that are being targeted identify Peevski as being part of this criminal conspiracy against them.”
Peevksi is also one of several Bulgarian defendants being sued in the Southern District of New York under the US Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO). The case was brought by three companies over a failed real estate venture.
The Peevski-owned Europost insists all three developments — the Magnitsky Act push, the RICO lawsuit and Harris’ lobbying — are part of a plot by corrupt business owners.
“After seeing that Bulgaria does not believe the oligarchs’ crocodile tears and that its citizens no longer fall for their vaudeville tricks, the multi-millionaires of the country’s murky period of transitioning to democracy decided to take their circus act across the pond and inundate the American society and institutions with lies,” the newspaper wrote on Dec. 3.
Meanwhile the US government has also been paying closer attention to developments in Bulgaria.
This January, the State Department blacklisted a judge “due to his involvement in significant corruption,” raising expectations that more officials could be targeted by such visa bans in the future.
And just last week, the US Embassy in Sofia marked International Anti-Corruption Day with a broadside against attacks on independent media in the country. Reporters Without Borders estimates Peevski controls roughly 80 per cent of Bulgaria’s media market.
“Bulgaria has amazing potential. It has a talented workforce and a rich cultural heritage. Corruption, however, is harming economic growth, worsening an unpredictable legal system, and smothering media independence,” the embassy statement said.