Bulgarian prosecutors investigate state energy regulator

Bulgarian prosecutors investigate state energy regulator
By bne IntelliNews April 25, 2017

The specialised anti-corruption unit of the Sofia city prosecutor’s office has launched an investigation into officials at the state energy regulator, currently called the Energy and Water Regulatory Commission (EWRC), a notice on the website of the prosecutor’s office said on April 24. The investigation follows a tip-off received by prosecutor general Sotir Tsatsarov on January 16. The tip-off was also sent to the parliament speaker, the prime minister, the interior minister and the head of the State Agency for National Security (DANS).

After examining the statements made in the tip-off, an investigation was launched to establish whether members of the independent regulator had performed their duties to control the business programmes of the natural gas distribution companies and whether the investments actually made by these companies correspond to those they declared that were then approved by the regulator. The investigation has direct implications for the natural gas price for the final consumer.

Another investigation concerns a number of natural gas distributors that form part of the Bulgarian company Overgas Inc to establish if actions by the regulator resulted in maintaining an unjustified high selling price for natural gas.

A third investigation is probing the regulator’s failure to deal with a complaint it received from natural gas supplier and distributor Overgas Inc in January 2011. The complaint was against state-owned natural gas transmission and storage operator Bulgartransgaz. Overgas Inc claimed that Bulgartransgaz did not provide access to the natural gas transmission system and the Chiren underground gas storage.

The state regulator was obliged to make a decision on the complaint within two months, but failed to do so. This resulted in a case against state-owned Bulgarian Energy Holding (BEH) and its subsidiaries Bulgargaz and Bulgartransgaz being launched before the European Commission for abuse of dominant position. The case is not yet completed and may result in significant unfavourable consequences, such as financial sanctions and disruption of the country’s energy system, the prosecutors claim.

The investigators are also assessing if crimes were committed in the latest setting of prices of natural gas, as well as the price of district heating and water for the capital city of Sofia. With assistance from DANS, the investigators are seizing documents, including from the regulator’s building.

These investigations are in the wake of a recent scandal that developed after a meeting between Tsatsarov and businessman Sasho Dontchev. The latter is owner of both Overgas Inc and the daily newspaper Sega, which was often critical of the last government of the centre-right Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria (GERB).  GERB won the snap general elections on March 26 and is holding talks for a new ruling coalition. Dontchev is also the chairman of the managing board of the Bulgarian Industrial Association.

After this meeting, Dontchev claimed that Tsatsarov was trying to use his position to warn him about what he put in his newspaper, and also to warn him against having links with the recently formed anti-corruption party “Yes, Bulgaria” and the TV channel BIT. Dontchev, however, denies having any significant links with the party or the TV channel.

Tsatsarov rejected Dontchev’s allegations and claimed the businessman tried to influence a probe into the state energy regulator. The prosecutor general said he only agreed to a meeting with Dontchev as he was a person representing one of the officially recognised employers’ organisations.

Dontchev also said that the meeting was arranged by businessman Georgi Gergov. Consequently, Gergov resigned from the managing board of the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP), the second largest party in the Balkan country.

The scandal also resulted in a small rally calling for Tsatsarov’s resignation.

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