Bulgarian Police Case Serves a Reminder: Whistleblowers Need Legal Protections

by Coalition staff

SOFIA – Konstantin Ivanov does not want to talk to journalists anymore. “I am fed up with media publicity,” he told a friend who approached him with an interview request on behalf of the Southeast Europe Coalition for Whistleblower Protection.

Five years ago, in 2011, Ivanov was a police officer in the Road Crimes Directorate at Bulgaria’s Ministry of Interior when he was forced to resign after nearly 20 years on the force. “This happened because Konstantin felt pressed after he dared to expose a vicious practice in the Ministry, and posed painful questions,” a friend and former colleague of the ex-police officer said.

The most serious issue raised by Ivanov was a protective umbrella that benefited certain companies and people who made donations to the Ministry.

Ivanov provided one of Bulgaria’s largest television networks, bTV, with a list of license plate numbers of 12 luxury cars that belonged to five companies. The list was hung on a wall in a police station, indicating which vehicles should not be stoppеd by traffic police because, according to Ivanov, they belonged to companies that donated money to the Ministry.

After the scandal erupted, it became known that over a period of just three months until May 2011, the Ministry received donations of €3.3 million from companies and individuals – including people who were under investigation at the time. Long before he went public, Ivanov alerted the Ministry’s inspection division about the practice, to no avail. He made several more national media appearances, offering additional details to support his revelations.

“After Konstantin Ivanov raised his voice against the donations to the Ministry, this evil practice indeed stopped. This is real proof that whistleblowers can do a good job.”

– Galentin Grozev, National Police Syndicate of Bulgaria

In turn, several Ministry officials pointed the finger at Ivanov, claiming he himself had breached internal rules six times. However, the Ministry did not explain why, if Ivanov had been such a rule-breaker, why he had been disciplined only once during his 20-year career.

Ivanov called these arguments ridiculous. One questionable disciplinary case, he said, stemmed from his arrest of a man who grabbed and tore up the officer’s ticket book during a traffic stop. In another case he was fired along with 130 colleagues because they protested against the government in the late 1990s. A court restored their labor rights.

What Chance for Whistleblowers?

After exposing the cash-for-protection scheme, a Facebook group called “To Defend the Valiant Policeman” was set up and supported by several hundred people. Despite this, Ivanov resignеd. The Ministry announced in 2011 that would bring a court case against him, though there is no record of any such action.

He explained to the Bulgarian media that after 20 years of public service to his community, he suddenly felt alone – and at odds not only with 150 of his colleagues, but also with the entire system. Only two colleagues dared to confirm Ivanov’s disclosure. The rest kept silence. One of the two colleagues also left his job in the Ministry, while the other remained.

Bulgaria had no whistleblower protection law on the books at the time – and it still doesn’t – meaning Ivanov had no legal recourse to be reinstated or seek compensation for lost wages and damage to his career and reputation.

Facing extreme pressure, Ivanov made his own investigation and revealed more details on the relationships between the companies and the Ministry. The media announced some of the companies were associated with people who themselves were under investigation. The Ministry did not deny this.

The practice was harshly criticized by the European Commission, which included it in its biannual monitoring report of Bulgaria in July 2011. Commission spokesperson Mark Gray said at the time that the donations threatened to undermine unbiased police investigations.

The Commission’s report motivated Prime Minister Boyko Borisov to announce that the donations would be stopped.

“After Konstantin Ivanov raised his voice against the donations to the Ministry, this evil practice indeed stopped. This is real proof that whistleblowers can do a good job,” Galentin Grozev, deputy head of Bulgaria’s National Police Syndicate, told the Southeast Europe Coalition for Whistleblower Protection.

This provided little satisfaction to Ivanov. He remained without job for a lengthy period, causing great hardship to his family and young children.

Many people still believe the donations are continuing in one way or another, for example, through municipalities and state companies. Although there is now a public register for donations, Ivanov’s former colleague suspects that not all donations are included on the list. He said he has no designs to follow in Ivanov’s footsteps.

“I do not plan to alert inspectors at the Ministry, or to alert the media. Did you see what happened to Konstantin?” said the colleague, who still works at the Ministry and asked not to be identified. “I do not want to be such a hero. My kids are still young, and I need to take care of them.”

He doubts, quite frankly, that a whistleblower like Ivanov will surface within the Ministry any time soon. “The price is very high,” murmured the police officer. “And what can one person do alone against the system?”


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