10 June 2020

An interview for “Trud” by Desislava Pironeva, Deputy Prosecutor General at the Supreme Administrative Prosecutor’s Office (SAPO): The Prosecutor's Office responds to every problem concerning food, medicine and waste.

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An interview for “Trud” by Desislava Pironeva, Deputy Prosecutor General at the Supreme Administrative Prosecutor’s Office (SAPO): The Prosecutor's Office responds to every problem concerning food, medicine and waste.

An interview for “Trud” by Desislava Pironeva, Deputy Prosecutor General at the Supreme Administrative Prosecutor’s Office (SAPO): The Prosecutor's Office responds to every problem concerning food, medicine and waste.

Coronavirus not only makes us sick, it appears as a special kind of catalyst for crime and infringement on our civil rights. In the health crisis, food and drug speculation, labor law abuse, lack of water and environmental pollution come forward on our agenda along with the infection. SAPO plays a key role in the fight against them. We are talking to Deputy Prosecutor General Desislava Pironeva about this. And not just about this.

- Ms. Pironeva, not many people know that SAPO is the one that constantly supervises the state bodies on which people's lives and health depend. What is new in its work in the state of emergency we are in?

- The work of the prosecutors at SAPO is related to the protection of public interest and rights of citizens through supervision of legality over the activity of the central administrative bodies, the administrative acts issued by them and in the implementation of the administrative-judicial supervision. A lot of significant components can be added to their daily activities and responsibilities. In the state of emergency, all this proved to be even more significant and effective. The regime of work in SAPO has changed; it has become even more dynamic. The situation was unknown to anyone, but an organization was set up to respond immediately and consider any important issues. After a break, SAPO has begun to administer justice since 21 April 2020 - with a very busy schedule and a large number of cases, including the participation of prosecutors at SAPO, despite the difficulties in the state of emergency. There were cases of high public interest and importance.

- Could you indicate some of them?

- They are related to garbage, waste incineration in thermoelectric power stations, the prices of electricity and heat, the activities of Water Supply and Sewerage companies, COVID-19, anti-epidemic measures and others. SAPO even started working on these issues more than a month before the first registered case of the disease in the country. We also work on problems with environmental protection - pollution of rivers, tailings and other violations of environmental standards. After an analysis of SAPO according to data from the Customs, the Commission for Protection of Competition initiated proceedings for fuel prices. SAPO instructed the National Customs Agency to check for the availability of the necessary quantities of alcohol and its prices, as well as for the identification and registration of a collection of antique objects exhibited in a museum by the Trakia Foundation. SAPO instructed the control authorities to monitor the speculation - the prices and the regime of sales of drugs, the quality of food from infections and asked them how the anti-epidemic measures are implemented - whether the public transport is disinfected, how the control is carried out in certain sites and settlements, endangered by the spread of infection. I could hardly point out everything that has been worked on at SAPO lately. By order of the Prosecutor General, I was assigned to coordinate with the executive authorities in connection with the anti-epidemic measures. In less than a month, there were more than 80 information materials from citizens, organizations and media. An organization has been set up to respond quickly and adequately, in accordance with the law, to any problem set out in them.

- You asked General Mutafchiiski and the Ministers of Health and Interior for data on Bulgarians returning from high-risk countries? Have you received them yet? What do they indicate?

- We have asked many questions to the competent institutions in connection with the spread of the infection worldwide. We also asked them, before the state of emergency was declared, what measures had been taken to limit the disease; how the border control and quarantine of the people who have returned to our country is carried out, whether the restriction of the passenger flow is envisaged. We also asked if there were enough personal protective equipment, medical and laboratory equipment, hygiene materials and consumables for prevention. How many are there and how ready are the medical institutions to accept patients with COVID-19 for treatment. We also asked about specific problems in hospitals, and about "rapid tests" and their use, and about many other things - all in connection with the pandemic. We will continue to ask. We receive information in due time or take action on our inquiries. It is too early to draw conclusions. The files are not closed for SAPO.

 - Do you have enough information about how the quarantine is observed in separate Roma neighborhoods and villages?

- The intervention of the Prosecution, expressed in control over the legality of acts or actions of the authorities, is possible only when the law provides it. And it is always in defense of public or state interest. Following the declaration of the state of emergency, the Minister of Health began to issue orders under the Health Act, introducing anti-epidemic measures on the territory of the country or a separate region. SAPO began to ask whether there were grounds for such restrictive measures. Later this was done in Bansko, Panicherevo and in separate neighborhoods. The introduced order for wearing masks, for the so-called "Quarantine" is a reaction to the fact that there is an epidemic in Bulgaria. SAPO was informed about the decisions of the executive power, the headquarters and the acts of the Ministry of Health. It is too early for final conclusions. A lot of work has been done everywhere. It should be noted, however, that in many cases, the reaction of the relevant authorities comes after SAPO has posed the problems and asks. Unfortunately, this is a tendency!

- Why did you publicly insist on the Food Safety Agency to strengthen the control over shops and public catering establishments?

- You correctly noted - "publicly". This was not only to protect the public and state interest, but also to inform people that the Prosecutor's Office monitors and will intervene in violations. Attention was paid to consumers and citizens not to be indifferent and uncritical. The society should be active. Preliminary data on violations in preparation and supplying of food gave us reason to take action under the supervision of legality. Of course, I can say that this turned out to be necessary and correct. As indicated by the reports of Bulgarian Food Safety Agency (BFSA) , it carries out continuous inspections.

"What about the Drug Agency?"  Has it done inspections according to the instructions you gave?

- Immediately after a problem was identified in the sale of medicines, advertised on Internet and in prices exceeding the registered ones, SAPO proposed to the competent authorities - the Executive Agency on Medicines, the National Council on Prices and Reimbursement of Medicinal Products, the Commission for Consumer Protection, and where necessary - and with the assistance of the National Revenue Agency and the Ministry of Interior, to undertake inspections. Inspections were also ordered by Prosecutor's Offices with territorial competence. The result was as follows: a number of violations were identified and actions were taken on competence. Citizens are becoming more active, they send signals to us and to the relevant controlling bodies. The reaction and the effectiveness of the authorities, even supported by the intervention of the Prosecutor`s Office, when necessary and lawful, makes the confidence among people to grow.

-         Your reaction against the speculators met equivocal response. According to your critics, what happens on the market is not a matter of prosecution.

-         It is only the law that determines when the intervention of the Prosecutor`s Office is necessary. This intervention shall be in the interest of the society, in the interest of the state and always concerns compliance with the law. I will give an example with the actions taken by the Commission for Protection of the Competition. SAPO addressed the Commission to assess if there are preconditions to initiate ex officio proceedings in order to find out violations and impose sanctions regarding the prices of liquid fuels in petrol stations in the country. Of course, the price for sale and purchase of fuels is not subject to administrative regulation. Nevertheless, the actual substance of data excludes all kinds of doubts regarding “coordinated practices” of actors, offering such products on the market – big petrol station chains etc. –that are contradictory to the requirements of competition and free initiative in economic activity. After additional data and references, provided also by the customs authority - the Commission finally initiated ex officio proceedings. The reaction of SAPO to any violation of law is similar.

-         After you found irregularities in the thermo-electric power station “Bobov dol”, they promised to stop incinerating unregulated waste. Did they keep their promise?

-         Given the great public importance of the pollution problem caused by the thermo-electric power station “Bobov dol” and the possible adverse consequences for the life and health of people living in nearby settlements, SAPO ordered on 31 March the Minister of Environment and Water to inspect the installation for incineration of waste in the thermo-electric power station and to make a report. The report points out, that experts from four Regional Inspectorates of Environment and Water have performed an inspection and have found out violations and non-compliance with basic obligations in the field of environmental legislation. A coercive administrative measure has been issued with the aim to suspend activities for joint incineration of biomass and waste until elimination of discrepancy with the conditions in the complex permits and legal requirements. Simultaneously, the Prosecutor General received a letter from the CEO of the thermo-electric power station “Bobov dol”, expressing an intention to cease the incineration of waste and to make in due course amendments in the complex permits regarding use of fuels and to abolish RDF fuel. All of this would not happen without the duly, lawful intervention of SAPO pursuant to the procedure of legality supervision.

-         Could you summarize the garbage crisis in two or three phrases, as the eco-minister recently did?

-         I hope this crisis will remain in the past. One thing is clear – the Prosecutor`s Office will react immediately in case of new or continuing violation. Therefore, my hope is not unfounded.

-         What about the lack of water in Pernik? In addition to Beli Iskar, that you have inspected, there are 53 other significant dams left.

-         At the end of 2019 the water crisis proved to be a phenomenon for the country, not the only one of its kind. SAPO took actions on each signal or data for violations. The Prosecution cannot act on behalf of the authorities. Control bodies at national level are involved in the files – Ministry of Environment and Water, Ministry of Regional Development and Public Works – as well as Prosecutor`s Offices, competent at territorial level. SAPO received answers from the Ministries about what measures they had taken and information from the Prosecutor`s Offices concerning: acts pursuant to the procedure of legality supervision, prescriptions to control bodies at regional level and initiated pre-trial proceedings for committed crimes. A lot of work has been done. In case of new date about violation, the immediate reaction of the Prosecution shall be undoubted.

-         Are you supervising for violations in the labour legislation in quarantine conditions, when many companies and enterprises closed and their employees were sent to a healthy “house arrest”?

-         The priority of the work of SAPO is the protection of citizen interest, the interest of the society and that of the state. We implement it through controlling legality. That means that we can address the controlling bodies, when information about labor legislation violation appears, but we could not act on behalf of them. We can, however, check whether their acts and actions are in conformity with the law and we can intervene, if this is admissible and founded. And we do that.

-         You contested in the court the tariff at which the Road Infrastructure Agency collects vignette fees. Remind us why did you do that and how far went this case in the court?

-         The file on the fees tariff, collected by the Road Infrastructure Agency was opened in SAPO last year. As a result of the check, it was found that a violation was committed when adopting the tariff, which gives grounds for contestation under Administrative Procedure Code. This was the reason for SAPO to make an objection before the Supreme Administrative Court (SAC). Legal proceedings have been opened. Obviously, the lawful reaction of SAPO has been effective, because the contested regulation was revealed after the legal proceedings had been initiated, but before conclusion of the case at first instance. By court decision of SAC, dated 21 April, the Council of Minister was sentenced to pay a fee to the Prosecutor`s Office for publication in State Gazette, after the tariff had been repealed. SAPO took actions to repeal the unlawful act.

-         Mrs. Pironeva, as far as I know, 38 prosecutors, together with you, work in SAPO. Did they manage to cope with the huge amount of work, you have just told us about?

-         The colleagues work hard. During the state of emergency we have a lot of additional work, in different conditions, challenges and dynamic. Nevertheless, the colleagues manage to cope with this very well, quickly, and I dare to say, the results are visible. The state of emergency challenged us to test our capacity – for me it turned out to be useful, because this was a kind of upgrade. I would like to wish to everyone health and strength, so that we can continue to do our job with professionalism and success.

 Our guest Desislava Pironeva was born in Gotse Delchev. Master in Law from the South-West University and Master in EU Law (international relations) from University of Sofia. Part-time assistant in the Department of Criminal Law(2009-2017). Junior prosecutor at Petrich Regional Prosecutor`s Office (2005-2007), prosecutor at Sofia Regional Prosecutor`s Office (2007-2016) and at Sofia City Prosecutor`s Office (2016-2020). Since January 30 she has been deputy Prosecutor General. 

Author: Anna Zarkova