Illegal tenders (I)
In a system full of corruption and bribes, in the past two years, only one mayor was caught in the act and then given suspended sentence. He was charged of having frauded a public tender. Though, some tenders seem more than doubtful and the witnesses of some businessmen and mayors reveal a world where the shadow games and the bribes dictate the rules of the game, rules which are accepted by all sides, otherwise, they are excluded from the deal.
In the past years, many Moldovan villages benefited from profitable investment projects. Either it is about the roads reparation, schools and kindergartens’ reparation or construction works of aqueducts, representatives of local authorities managed, more than ever, lucrative tenders following which, by law, they had to choose the best deal for the settlement they represent: a financially balanced offer and a trustworthy and skilled economic unit. The investigation into dozens of tenders showed a different reality. A world, where important tenders in rural settlements, won fairly without any influence of relationships, actually does not exist. Orders, bribes, obscure relationships are used everywhere to impose yourself in the world of rigged tenders.
A tender against 200 thousands lei
Alexandru Zaharia was mayor of village Larguta, district Cantemir with a break of 4 years, in 1995. In December 2014, he was caught in the act by officers of the National Anticorruption Center (CNA) in a pub in the city center, shortly after receiving 170 thousand lei from Alexei Ungureanu, manager of the company SRL Aniplan. Ion Munteanu, prosecutor of Anticorruption Prosecution (PA) who started the investigation of this case established that the mayor, as a chairman of the Tender Committee, "acting with criminal intention” before staging a tender, claimed 200 000 lei from Ungureanu. He was supposed to participate in a tender, organized by the authorities for a plot of 5.5 ha in the unincorporated land in village Larguta, and the businessman was meant to be designated winner for this money. The mayor would receive money after signing the contract and after the tender plot is registered at Cadastre.
Thus, two months later after the tender won by Ungureanu against 85 thousand lei was staged, prosecutors said that the mayor had asked, again, the sum of 200 thousand lei and after negotiations he was threatened with termination of the agreement. He received just 170 thousands lei in a pub in the center of Chisinau. After he received the money, he was detained by CNA officers and taken to detention isolator. On December 29, 2015 Alexandru Zaharia was given five years of suspended sentence, three years’ probation, he was charged of influence peddling and not passive corruption, a crime for which he was indicted. Prosecutor Ion Munteanu has not agreed with the sentence, he attacked it to the Court of Appeals (CA) Chisinau, demanding imprisonment for the defendant. Alexandru Zaharia has not submitted his candidacy for a new mandate last summer, accepted the decision of first instance.
Explanations of the sentenced mayor
We met Alexandru Zaharia, the only mayor who in the last two years was caught in the act of bribing, accused and later convicted for faking a tender. On Saturday, he welcomed us into his modest house in village Larguta, district Cantemir. The man, now unemployed, says he is innocent and that the charges against him would have no real support. He agreed to tell us in detail his view, which, as stated in the verdict issued on his name, was reported to judges. Former mayor said that the agricultural land, for which the tender was organized, has deposits of bentonite and therefore, was very important for the three businessmen. The former mayor said that Alexei Ungureanu, who subsequently denounced him at the CNA obtained land in the third round of the tender, after the first two tenders were canceled, because the winner, Gheorghe Golban, his distant relative (father of a son in law with the mayor’s brother) has not paid the amount for which he has won over 400 thousand lei in the first tender and 800 thousand lei in the second tender.
"I was chairman of the Tender Committee. I just opened the tender. Furthermore, my tasks were limited. The bidder continued the tender. That happens at the open outcry tenders. The highest bidder wins", says the former mayor. Alexei Ungureanu told the law bodies that after the second tender, he met the mayor in a pub in the village and he would have asked 200 thousand lei to designate him the winner of the tender. "I did not participate in the second tender as one of the participants was a relative of mine. I went to Cantemir at an operative meeting of the Council. I was not in the village. I could not meet him. And then, how can I talk to him about the land that was sold already? Golban won the tender and was obliged to pay within 20 days. The land was adjudged. How could I know what was Golban going to do? I am his relative, but very distant... How could I ask for money? Why would you accept to give 200 000 if you bought the land with 80 thousands lei? " wonders Alexandru Zaharia.
"It means that we have to leave this country"
Alexei Ungureanu was the only bidder in the third tender. Thus, he has won the plot against 83 thousand lei, although in two previous tenders, he auctioned up to 400 thousand. "Only after he won the tender and came to the village to take some documents, I discussed with him and I said that I was the founder of the village church and that I wish to find someone that would make a donation to the church fence. He said he would help... Later, he backed away. I called him, but he said, that maybe today, tomorrow", explains Alexandru Zaharia. He pointed out that the money he received was aimed for the church fence. "Perhaps, I hinted that I could terminate the agreement..., but I was angry that he postponed. The money was to fence the church, not for me. And this is not related to the tender. Look, how I live. I do not have bank accounts, my children live on rent", says the former mayor. He pointed that Alexei Ungureanu began to record conversations between them in December, 2 months later after the tender was organized.
Alexei Ungureanu, the businessman who denounced Alexandru Zaharia at CNA, answered briefly in conversation with us. He said that he did not have the right to discuss this problem, and he was disappointed after I said that the mayor whom he denounced was given 5 years of suspended sentence. "It means that we have to leave this country ... There is no point in fighting corruption. Fence for church? Let's be serious", he replied to us.
According to the information contained in a response sent to the editorial office, in the past two years, CNA has conducted investigations into 12 cases involving officials from local mayoralties and their involvement in public tenders. In most cases (8), local officials have been investigated because authorities have sold the goods without announcing a public tender, as required by law. Though they speak about corruption in tenders everywhere, just in one case, that of mayor of Larguta, CNA investigated over the bribery in the process of staging a tender.
Pact with the devil to do something for the community
Following discussions with several mayors, we realized the fact that Presidents of the Tender Committee have a decisive role in rigging tenders. Though, most of mayors whom I discussed with, were extremely cautious in discussions with us, we still managed to convince the head of an important village in the Republic of Moldova, with over 4000 residents, to talk about tenders in rural areas. After several days of "negotiations", I met him. The discussion took place at the mayoralty, but in an office other than of the mayor. He locked the door and the official made sure that there was nobody to film or record the dialogue. Anonymity was a condition set from the first.
The official with many mandates of mayor, recently elected for another term, told us how he "arranged" more tenders for the benefit of the community.
"Sometimes, we have to make alliance with the devil, otherwise, the 4-year mandate ends and you have not accomplished anything", said the mayor.
I insisted to know de facto, how this “alliance with the devil” happens. Thus, the mayor said that he received funding for a very important project for the village and he violated the law. Specifically, the expert who made the design for the job, advised a company that will help him to get necessary funding, on one condition: the tender must be won by that company that will help with financing. Last year, the tender was organized and was won by the company, whom the mayor agreed before.
"Here it is, is it OK?". I said: "Thank you '"
Asked whether a mayor has the power to influence on the decision of the tender committee in favor of a particular company, the mayor said firmly that he can as other members of the Committee are de facto his subordinates. He admitted that he did his best, several times, to prevent other economic units to participate in the tender, to hire the company which he agreed before. "He (the winner) has several companies. His wife, son-in-law, son have companies. He brings 4-5 offers and the wife is the winner, for example. If he does it, he knows that he will get profit", said the official.
In smaller projects, up to one million lei, other methods of "collaboration" are used by mayors and economic units. The law requires that at least 3 companies must participate in the tender; the winning company has to find other two “friend” companies to participate just to complete legal requirements. "It does not matter where he finds them. I organize the contest of offers, this is the procedure", said the mayor. He added that he makes such agreements with economic units whom he organized works in the past and which he trusts. Of course, the mayor benefits from this business. "Everyone wants to get something. The mayor has a small percentage". Asked about this percentage, the mayor said that he had never asked for a certain amount of money. "Someone told me one time:" Here it is, is it OK? ". I said: "Thank you" and that is all. I spoke with them afterwards, like friends ... They are happy when you do not ask for, but you reach an understanding", explains the mayor.
Economic unit: „Absolutely everyone does it”
Honest statements of the mayor are confirmed by almost all economic units who participate in tenders staged in Moldovan villages and which I discussed over the past months. We met a representative of a company in a commercial center in the capital. He is not pleased with the fact that aimed to win a tender, you have to pay, and that is why, the businessman accepted to talk about the system. On one condition. Not to publish his identity. Otherwise, he will not get any agreement. He said that though his company has recently participated in many tenders and proposed best prices, other companies were designated winners. „People agree before with mayors, with … Especially now, under this crisis, there are no jobs. Works which are backed at high level are promoted. Either at the Parliament, Government or District Council … They reach an understanding, do the project, and do everything”. Following this discussion, after we have talked with other persons, inclusively with a mayor, we found that our source, who spoke about the corruption in the system promised to the mayor money to facilitate winning of a tender in the village where he was mayor.
Anonymity was the condition for which all actors involved in rigged auctions agreed to talk. Their motivation was simple. They will be excluded from the system and thus they will not be able to win tenders, even by bribing. Some heads of SRLs, that have won many tenders in recent years, admitted that though they do not accept this practice, they had to pay themselves to win the tenders. "Guys, this is something that ... You know, any economic unit, absolutely everyone does it. Nobody says it ... when it comes to bribery". The representative of the company said that except the fact that you should reach an understanding with the mayor to win the tender, you must be backed by the Public Procurement Agency (APP), institution that approves or cancels tender results.
"After the tender was held, the entrepreneur goes to the AAP and if you do not agree with them…, no. Usually, at least 2% of the contract is requested. If you do not pay, you have all the chances to lose the tender which you won. Plenty of reasons. Once, we did not want to pay and we were said that we will lose the agreement. When we wanted to give money, it was too late. The tender was canceled", he said.
„They can request 5%, 10% or 8%...”
"Sometimes you go, strike hands, everything OK and then you get a phone call... From an MP, a minister who says Mr. Mayor, this one must win. He quickly complies. The mayor and the Tender Committee find something wrong immediately. You cannot present a perfect application", says another businessman. "The mayor says: Good. I agree. Give me 3%, but you go and decide the problem at AAP. They can request 5%, 10% or 8%. Or they say, 'No, this one must win", said the businessman. Also, he pointed that that bribery is not given directly, but through intermediaries and it is left in a safe place and the one who offers it, is informed some minutes before.
In conclusion, business people whom I talked to, complain that because of bribing, their profits as a result of certain works performed are minimal and that is why, many times the works are of poor quality as they save on materials.
Mayor: "I am 100% convinced that the auction had one goal"
However, it is difficult to prove that a tender has been frauded, often impossible. Because in most cases, both parts are satisfied as they benefited from the collaboration. Ion Gamart, mayor of village Pelivan, district Orhei had a case in July 2015. The mayor is sure that the tender held in December 2014 for "expansion works of gravitational sewerage networks, rehabilitation of sewerage network and pumping station retooling " in the village has been frauded by the former management of Mayoralty. The tender was won by company Litarcom SRL, which proposed 7.15 million lei for these works. Attending the auction were two other companies. Administration of the village preferred a trader, that won most of the tenders funded National Ecological Fund (NEF) of the Ministry of Environment.
„I am convinced 100% that the tender had one goal- this company to win. This is my opinion and I will not change my mind. Further actions of paying the money in advance, and so on, reveal the fact that the tender aimed to designate this company the winner”, said Ion Gamart. To this effect, in September 2015, the mayor filed complaints at the Anticorruption Prosecution and other relevant institutions and demanded to investigate the way how the former mayor of the village transferred a sum of money in advance to company Litarcom, 2 days after he lost the elections and before a new mayor was validated by the Orhei Court, on July 9. Gamart refers to an agreement signed by the former mayor Grigore Barbu on June 30, 2015; 2 days after Gamart won the second mandate in the elections in the locality. The company Litarcom was transferred 750 thousands lei for works which were not completed, though officially, the money is transferred to all companies after works are completed. Another unusual aspect of this tender is the additional agreement worth 1,18 million lei, signed between the Mayoralty Pelivan and Litarcom SRL, and registered at AAP on July 31, 2015. Ion Gamart says that the agreement was signed by the former mayor Grigore Barbu at the end of the mandate though its need is not clear as it is not known if additional money is necessary to perform works.
After the former mayor Grigore Barbu found out the topic of the discussion, he was puzzled and said that he was in a meeting and we should call him later. He never answered to our phone calls.. „ They threaten me that if I renounce on it (company Litarcom), we will lose this project. But I want to do it correctly. How can I accept the works, if they are performed under criticism?”, wonders Ion Gamart. In late December 2015, one year after the tender was organized, the works on the aqueduct in Pelivan stopped.
(To be continued)
P.S. Our next investigation will focus on tenders worth over 150 million lei won by the company Litarcom and problems of local authorities following these tenders. Also, you will find out how companies that propose the highest price, win tenders in Moldovan villages, political tenders and tenders organized by mayors for their families, and AAP’s stance on rigged tenders.
This investigation has been produced as part of the “Shining a Light on Corruption in Moldova” Project, implemented by the Centre for Investigative Journalism and Freedom House, with the financial support of the Ministry of External Affairs of the Kingdom of Norway.
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