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Bulgaria's 'Oligarch In Chief' Taps Washington Lobby Firm Following Critical Report

Bulgarian media mogul Delyan Peevski (file photo)
Bulgarian media mogul Delyan Peevski (file photo)

WASHINGTON -- One of Bulgaria’s most powerful businessmen has hired a top Washington lobby firm amid accusations he is undermining democracy and inflaming corruption in the East European nation.

Delyan Peevski, a media mogul and lawmaker, tapped BGR Group, Washington's third-largest lobbying firm by revenue, to help him with “issues in the U.S.,” according to lobbying registration documents published on December 17. The six-month contract was concluded between Aleksandr Angelov, a lawyer close to Peevski, and BGR.

Peevski will pay the Washington firm $30,000 a month. BGR lobbyist Tom Locke, a retired senior FBI official, will oversee the government affairs effort for Peevski, according to the filing.

Locke specializes in dealings with the Justice Department, the FBI, the CIA, the Treasury Department, and other U.S. and international law enforcement and intelligence agencies, according to the BGR website.

Angelov and Peevski did not respond to RFE/RL’s requests for comment about the mogul's "issues" in the United States. Jeff Birnbaum, who heads BGR’s public relations division, did not immediately reply to an RFE/RL request for comment.

Peevski’s lobbying effort comes on the heels of a critical report about his influence in Bulgaria, a NATO and EU member, and shortly before a new administration that has promised to address democracy failings and corruption among allies takes power in Washington.

Marshall Harris, a Washington lobbyist for another Bulgarian businessman, Plamen Bobokov, distributed informational material on Capitol Hill that described Peevski as one of the “key architects of Bulgaria’s democratic decline and devolution into a criminal state,” including the capture of privately held assets by extralegal means.

Harris, a former State Department official who served in Bulgaria from 1988 to 1990, is a managing partner at Alexandria Group International. He was hired by Bobokov in July after the businessman and his brother Atanas Bobokov were detained in Bulgaria on allegations of waste mismanagement and corruption.

Harris said at the time that the allegations against the Bobokovs were contrived and an attempt by corrupt officials to seize their profitable assets, which include one of the largest producers of motor oils and industrial lubricants in Eastern Europe.

'Ultimate Puppet Master'

The material that Harris distributed to U.S. lawmakers described Peevski as Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov’s “oligarch in chief” and the “ultimate puppet master” in the country.

Harris told RFE/RL on December 18 that it didn’t make much sense for Peevski to spend so much money for his lawyer to work with BGR unless they had been receiving inquiries from U.S. agencies and need to respond.

Harris said the timing of the hiring comes at a critical juncture in U.S. policy. He expects the incoming Biden administration to take concerns about the rule of law in Bulgaria and other allied nations "much more seriously" than the Trump administration has.

President-elect Joe Biden has expressed alarm about the rollback of liberal values in certain Central and Eastern European countries and said he would hold a democracy summit in his first year in part to "confront the change of nations that are backsliding."

Peevski, 40, controls newspapers, a private TV channel, and news websites. Reporters Without Borders says he accounts for some 80 percent of the print media in Bulgaria, as well as private television networks and websites, giving him enormous influence.

Opposition officials say he has been behind the appointment of ministers and members of the judiciary.

This is not the first time Peevski has hired BGR through his lawyer Angelov. Peevski tapped the firm in 2017 after yet another Bulgarian businessman, Tsvetan Vassilev, began lobbying the U.S. government to sanction the media mogul under the Global Magnitsky Act.

The act, named after Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, allows the U.S. government to impose visa bans and targeted sanctions on individuals anywhere in the world responsible for committing human rights violations or acts of significant corruption.

Vassilev, a former bank owner living in exile in Serbia, is wanted by Bulgaria, which accuses him of running a criminal operation.

Vassilev has denied the charges and claimed Peevski and former prosecutor Sotir Tsatsatov were behind the government’s campaign against him. Peevski dismissed the accusation.

Peevski was never sanctioned and Vassilev ended his unsuccessful lobbying campaign in August 2019, according to filings. Peevski’s contract with BRG ended four months later.

With reporting by RFE/RL's Bulgarian Service
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    Todd Prince

    Todd Prince is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL based in Washington, D.C. He lived in Russia from 1999 to 2016, working as a reporter for Bloomberg News and an investment adviser for Merrill Lynch. He has traveled extensively around Russia, Ukraine, and Central Asia.