Bulgarian officials charged in major passport fraud scheme

Thousands may have acquired EU passports through corruption in Sofia and other cities

Prosecutors believe people have been paying €5,000 for Bulgarian passports and that about 30 per week were issued.

Prosecutors believe people have been paying €5,000 for Bulgarian passports and that about 30 per week were issued.

 

Investigators in Bulgaria have detained more than 20 people, including officials, for suspected involvement in a lucrative scheme that may have allowed thousands of people to fraudulently acquire passports from the EU member.

The investigation focuses on the national agency for Bulgarians living abroad, where some staff are suspected of taking bribes from foreigners in return for certificates stating that they have family roots in Bulgaria, which can be used to apply for a passport.

Prosecutors believe people were paying €5,000 for such a document, that the agency was issuing about 30 per week, and that thousands of non-Bulgarians may have gained citizenship of the country that way.

Most requests for these certificates came from people in non-EU members Macedonia, Ukraine, Albania, Serbia and Moldova, for whom possession of a Bulgarian passport would mean a chance to travel and work across the bloc.

Abuse of office

After searching offices in the capital, Sofia, and the cities of Pleven and Kyustendil, police on Tuesday charged the head of the agency, Petar Haralampiev, and three other officials with creating an organised crime group, taking bribes, forgery and abuse of office.

Bulgarian justice minister Tsetska Tsacheva said that from May 2017 to June 2018, her department recommended the rejection of more than 750 passport applications, as concern mounted over how certificates of origin were being issued.

She said her ministry was also working on possible changes to how the country’s passports can be acquired through proof of Bulgarian heritage or by investing or depositing at least €1 million in Bulgaria.

Money-launderers

Several EU states, including Ireland, operate such “golden passport” or “golden visa” schemes, despite warnings from security and anti-corruption watchdogs that they can be open to abuse by undercover government agents and money-launderers.

The latest scandal in Bulgaria will increase pressure on its government to intensify its fight against corruption, which the EU still keeps under special monitoring 11 years after the country joined the bloc.

Mr Haralampiev was nominated to lead the agency for Bulgarians abroad by the nationalist United Patriots alliance – part of the country’s coalition government – and he is seen as particularly close to the right-wing VMRO party.

“If it turns out that the head of the agency . . . and other people related to the agency have committed such a violation, then I am firmly convinced that they should face the full severity of the law,” said defence minister and VMRO leader Krasimir Karakachanov.