Slovenian Govt Engulfed in PPE Procurement Scandal

By , 25 Apr 2020, 07:00 AM Politics
The Cabinet on 13 March 2020 The Cabinet on 13 March 2020 Twitter Vlada Republike Slovenije @vladaRS

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STA, 24 April 2020 - A report by public broadcaster TV Slovenija on Thursday showed extensive political interference in the procurement of personal protective equipment (PPE), with a senior employee of the Commodities and Reserves Agency pointing a finger at Economy Minister Zdravko Počivalšek, his aides and former executives. Počivalšek denies any wrongdoing.

Ivan Gale, who stood in for the agency's director Anton Zakrajšek after he contracted the coronavirus, told the Tarča current affairs show that Počivalšek had personally intervened in favour of a ventilator contract with the company Geneplanet worth EUR 8 million.

A recording of a phone call between Počivalšek and a representative of the agency was played in which Počivalšek provides guidance on how the contract should be handled.

Počivalšek also "sent his envoy Andreja Potočnik to the agency and she pressured us, the director, screamed at the head of finance to transfer the money to the company," Gale said.

The agency had also been pressured into signing a contract with Geneplanet for a million FFP2-type masks for frontline staff by Potočnik,a member of a government task force for the purchase of PPE, and another member of the task force, Mitja Terče, according to Gale.

Gale said he had talked to Počivalšek several times and had been told to "be cooperative, listen to Terče". The minister himself, however, "avoided being held to account". "You will not find any consent or signature by the minister or the secretary on any contract, the gentlemen decided to shift this to others."

Gale also believes that Zakrajšek, who has recently been replaced as agency director, was pressured into resigning.

Počivalšek responded today, saying that the story was an orchestrated "hunt on my head". He acknowledged things could have been done better, but he said the situation at the start of the epidemic had been unprecedented.

"Neither me nor my colleagues have lobbied or politically influenced decisions in any way," Počivalšek said, adding that the goal had been to speed up procedures and secure protective equipment for the frontline at a time when it was needed the most.

"If employees at the agency had worked at the same pace ... as they had been used to in peacetime, we would still not have emergency equipment to this day," Počivalšek said.

He sees no need to resign over the accusations. "I don't see a scandal in the equipment purchasing, I see work well done," he said.

Terče issued a written statement to TV Slovenija saying he had acted transparently and in the interest of the country. He denied pressuring anyone.

Gale mentioned several other current and former officials as exerting pressure, including former MEP and prime minister Lojze Peterle, who intervened with the agency for the supply of masks from Germany, offering a small company owned by his daughter as a go-between.

Damijan Jaklin, state secretary at the Defence Ministry, the head of an interdepartmental task force reviewing offers for the supply of equipment, pushed for a contract with Inovatio, a Maribor-based company. "For this provider in particular the pressure was unusual," Gale said.

Marjan Podobnik, the president of the non-parliamentary People's Party (SLS), pressured the agency's director to conclude a deal with Dobnik Trade, a small company from Slovenska Bistrica. Gale said he had threatened the director that he would lose his job.

Another company that the agency was pressured into signing a contract with is Acron, which has been in the spotlight in recent weeks because the mother of Defence Minister Matej Tonin is a senior employee there.

Acron has signed several contracts with the agency worth roughly EUR 30 million, with Gale saying that Acron had turned out to be a reliable supplier but had "always been a privileged supplier".

Tonin has repeatedly denied intervening on behalf of Acron and has asked the Commission for the Prevention of Corruption to look into the deals.

Yesterday, before the report aired, the opposition Marjan Šarec List (LMŠ) said it would file a no-confidence motion against Počivalšek, however, the only other party to support this was the opposition Left.

This has meanwhile changed, as the opposition Social Democrats (SD) and the Alenka Bratušek Party (SAB) have also backed the plan. The LMŠ said today that a constructive no-confidence vote against the entire government was also possible but would be hard to pull off.

The LMŠ called on Tonin to resign as well, while the defence minister said this morning that many of the issues raised in the report had been news to him.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Janša tweeted that the government had ordered reports from all bodies involved in PPE procurement, which will also show how much PPE Slovenia had when his government had taken over from the team led by Marjan Šarec just over a month ago.

Janša said the reports would be sent to the National Assembly, while Tonin, is a statement for commercial broadcaster Kanal A, said that the reports would also be sent to investigative authorities. Once it is established what had happened, accountability will be demanded, Tonin added.

Today, reports suggested that Gale had been assigned police protection but this has been denied by the police. It prompted, however, Transparency International Slovenija to call on the authorities not only to examine the contentious procedures, but also to protect whistleblowers.

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