May 14, 2019 / 11:37 AM / 11 days ago

Bulgarian farm minister resigns amid guest houses probe

SOFIA (Reuters) - Bulgarian Agriculture Minister Rumen Porozhanov resigned on Tuesday, the latest high-level official to step down in scandals involving purchases of luxury properties and the building of guest houses with EU aid for private use.

Porozhanov quit two weeks after prosecutors launched a large-scale probe into possible fraud with EU rural development aid at over 700 guest houses.

The probe has touched a nerve in the Balkan country, ranked as the EU’s most corrupt member state in the 2018 Corruption Perception Index by Transparency International. Despite numerous political pledges to reduce graft, the country has yet to sentence a high-level official over corruption.

Local media reported that Porozhanov bought a spacious apartment in 2004 at well below market price. Other reports said he had failed to properly declare real estate deals carried out by his wife in 2017.

Porozhanov has denied any wrongdoing and told Prime Minister Boyko Borissov he did not want the attacks against him to influence the work of the center-right government, the government press office said in a statement.

Porozhanov was in charge of the State Agriculture Fund at a time when millions of euros were given as subsidies.

A deputy economy minister had to quit his post last month and was charged with crimes against the financial interest of the EU after media reports said he and his family were the only users of an expensive holiday estate built with EU aid.

Borissov had previously praised Porozhanov’s work at the farm ministry and has said his property purchases happened too long ago to be linked with his post.

But another media report on Tuesday said Porozhanov had not sacked a deputy head of the State Agriculture Fund whose phone number appeared as a contact for a guest house, despite the prime minister’s order to let her go.

“If he wants to protect someone ... I have said very clearly, we do not make compromises to anyone,” Borissov told reporters.

Media reports said close relatives of politicians across the political spectrum have taken EU subsidies for such houses, worrying Bulgarians who are frustrated by high-level graft and the impunity of the political elite.

In March, the justice minister and two deputy ministers were forced to quit their jobs over a real estate deals scandal dubbed “Apartmentgate” which rocked the European Union’s poorest member state.

The scandal has affected support for the ruling center-right GERB party ahead of the EU elections, putting it a close second behind the opposition Socialists.

Borissov, who took office for a third time two years ago, said he would bring to justice any wrongdoers but would not resign if his party wins fewer EU seats than the opposition.

Reporting by Tsvetelia Tsolova, editing by Ed Osmond

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