News of the SAPARD suspension follows the January suspension of payments for projects managed by the National Road Infrastructure Funds and of Phare payments for projects run by units of the Finance Ministry and the Ministry of Regional Development and Public Works in late February, BTA reports
The Director-General of the European Commission's Directorate-General for Agriculture and Rural Development Jean-Luc Demarty has sent a letter to the Bulgarian authorities, informing them that co-funding on one SAPARD programme is suspended as there are implications and suspicions of irregular practice related to incorrect spending of funds, the Spokesman of Commissioner Mariann Fischer Boel, Michael Mann, said.
The programme in question is the one that covers funds for marketing and agriculture of agricultural products. The funding will be suspended until investigation shows whether there is a problem or not. This does not mean that Bulgaria will not receive the money in the future, but at this point the statement is that the European Commission will not co-fund the said activities, Mann said.
He could not specify the concrete funds concerned. On principle, funds under SAPARD for Bulgaria for the 2000-2006 period stand at 160 million euro, but the sum related to this case is much smaller, Mann said.
Investigation on financing with money under this programme is being launched. DG Agriculture officials will travel to Bulgaria on Monday to discuss problems related to the implementation of SAPARD, Mann said.
The news of the suspension of funding was made known earlier in the day by United Democratic Forces MP Yane Yanev, who also said that a procedure has started to claim money back from defaulting beneficiaries. The claims procedure was prompted by inspections by OLAF and other EU bodies, which have identified abuse of SAPARD funding. Yanev mentioned two cases: involving the meat packer Rodopa of Veliko Turnovo and the poultry abattoir Chubra.
Finance Minister Plamen Oresharski confirmed in front of journalists in Parliament that more than 100 million euro have been suspended under one of the SAPARD measures. Oresharski said his preliminary information indicates an old OLAF-investigated case dating from 2006 and refused further comment, stating that later in the day he would make an official statement.
Deputy Agriculture and Food Supply Minister Dimiter Peichev confirmed in an interview for BTA that the European Commission has really suspended payments under Measure 2 of SAPARD. He specified the measure is a temporary one and concerns some 50 projects worth 140 million euro in respect to an OLAF probe for the illegal use of 7.5 million euro in 2006.
MEP Petya Stavreva has made an official inquiry to OLAF with a request for more detailed information, she herself said in Parliament. She expects to receive an answer on Monday.
The extraparliamentary but influential GERB party issued a special statement saying that the suspension of SAPARD payments will push diligent beneficiaries into bankruptcy because they will be unable to get reimbursement for investment they have already made.
The decision to freeze payments also puts to question the start of the programme for development of rural areas which was expected to provide 3.2 billion euro in support of agricultural producers, processing businesses and municipalities, says GERB.
They demand immediate explanation of the Ministry of Agriculture and Food Supplies about what has prompted this measure.