A controversial media mogul lobbies against the “screwing" of a key judge over wiretaps she allegedly authorised; then a mysterious, more powerful, man intervenes, ordering that the “screwing” be completed.
That’s not a scene from the latest John Grisham legal thriller, but an ongoing scandal from Bulgaria, an EU member that has long been slammed for failing to stamp out judicial corruption.
Leaked recordings published in segments over the past few weeks have revealed conversations between Vladimira Yaneva, until recently the chairwoman of the Sofia City Court, and one of the court’s former judges Rumyana Chenalova, in February when the so-called Worm case was at its height.
The Worm case concerns suspicions that Yaneva had broken the law by granting permits for the use of special surveillance devices to spy on and record people, including interior ministry employees and staff at foreign embassies. It is not yet clear what the purpose of the recordings was.
The authenticity of the leaked "Yanevagate" recordings, obtained by the whistleblower platform BalkanLeaks and released by bivol.bg, has not been officially confirmed and their author is still unknown. Chenalova has rejected allegations that she personally made the recordings, but has confirmed most of the information contained in them, unlike Yaneva who claims not to remember anything.
The other people named in the tapes have also denied any involvement. They include Prime Minister Boyko Borissov – who was also allegedly pushing for the sacking of Yaneva. Her defenders, Prosecutor-General Sotir Tsatsarov, the chairman of the Supreme Administrative Court George Kolev, and two members of the Supreme Judicial Council (SJC) - Yasen Todorov and Dimitar Uzunov – have also denied involvement.
Borissov has downplayed the scandal, referring to the recordings as “chatter in a beauty salon”, while Kolev called them just a “chat between two women”.
The latest recording was released on November 26 after President Rossen Plevneliev turned down a request by the chairman of the Supreme Court of Cassation, Lozan Panov, to appoint an independent commission to investigate the case. It reveals the participation of powerful local media mogul Delyan Peevski in the saga.
The 1:45 minute tape features a conversation between the two women and another man, who says he has been given the opportunity to review and modify a report by the National Bureau for Control of Special Surveillance Means. This was probably related to the Worm case, which was to be submitted to Brussels shortly as part of the EU’s monitoring process for the Bulgarian judiciary.
In the tape, Chenalova says that “Delyan” (later confirmed to be a reference to Peevski) had talked to both Borissov and Prosecutor-General Tsatsarov. She appears surprised that another, even more powerful figure has now entered the equation, resulting in the recent launch of disciplinary proceedings against Yaneva.
“Who is that man, who can turn the tables in this way?” she asks. The identity of the man the three figures are talking about – someone even more influential even than Borissov – has not been revealed.
Peevski, whose brief appointment as a national security chief in June 2013 triggered widespread and prolonged protests under the slogan “#WHO (is governing Bulgaria)”, is widely seen as the embodiment of links between the government, parliament and the judiciary which have made it possible for a handful of oligarchs to rule the country with the invaluable help of selected media.
After the release of the latest recording, Borissov said on November 27 that he would not comment any more on the recordings, so as not to interfere with the judicial process.
Meanwhile, at a SJC meeting, Tsatsarov stated that Yaneva is not guilty in the Worm scandal and that nothing can be proved in the case. Accused of breaching the rules of the Bulgarian code of ethics with this statement, Tsatsarov replied: “I will comment on what I want.”
The scandal, which has been making headlines in Bulgaria for several weeks, has not yet triggered any resignations, though finally on November 30 a pre-trial procedure was launched to investigate the recordings.
On November 24, independent news outlet Mediapool.bg published a comment from an unnamed official at the European Commission, who was quoted as saying: “We are aware of the calls from within the SJC for the prosecution to carry out a thorough investigation. These checks should aim to establish the facts and should clarify all doubts related to the claims made regarding possible trading of influence by senior magistrates and politicians.”
The EC official called for a swift and objective investigation, adding that an “independent check can happen only if those allegedly involved are excluded from participation in the process”.
Interpreting the comment, Mediapool wrote that the EC has asked for the resignation of Tsatsarov, sparking a wave of accusations from Peevski-owned media that Mediapool, as well as the justice minister, had deliberately attacked the judiciary and were plotting to topple the government.
The day after Mediapool 's first report, the EC issued an official statement saying that publications alleging it had demanded the resignations of people involved in a wiretap scandal in Bulgaria's judiciary were incorrect.
“The role of the European Commission is not to enter into discussions how each member country should organise an independent investigation of separate cases,” it said, but did not explicitly reject its official’s statement that people involved in the case should not participate in its investigation.
In a bTV show on November 28, Ivanov described reports that he is trying to unseat the prosecutor general as “funny”. He said that he and his supporters from the Reformist Block, the junior coalition partner of Borissov’s Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria (GERB), are unable to appoint a new prosecutor general, given their small representation in parliament.
Ivanov stressed that the “bomb” that is threatening to blast the Bulgarian state is related to claims (in the recordings) that have not been checked and called for a thorough investigation.
On November 29, the Reformist Block’s co-chairman Radan Kanev called on Tsatsarov to hand the right for investigation of “Yanevagate” to another prosecutor and thus clean up his name.
“After a decade of scandals, we are on the way to unearth the whole corruption network, the core of the mafia, because the key mafia bastion is the judiciary,” Kanev told a bTV show.
However, on November 30 Tsatsarov refused to step aside during the investigation and claimed that the recordings were part of a plot, directed by one (unnamed) political party to weaken the government.