By Clive Leviev – Sawyer of The Sofia Globe
Two years on from the September 2011 special operation to catch Bulgarian traffic police in the act of bribery, further details of just how endemic corruption was among the squads.
But that, in turn, is still not the full picture – and erring motorists may be well advised not to try to “settle” matters by offering a blue note or two (or three), whether denominated in euro or leva.
This past August, a Romanian motorist was stopped in the Veliko Turnovo region for unlawful overtaking. He refused to sign the traffic citation, while at the same time, his passenger held out a 20 euro note through the open window.
This resulted in arrest for both, according to an Interior Ministry statement.
The case was not an isolated one, and lest cynics suggest that the offer of 20 euro was below the price range of a Bulgarian traffic police officer, consider the tale of the 33-year-old Bulgarian arrested in Chirpan for declining a breathalyser test after having been stopped when he was seen driving erratically. Taken for a blood sample and to be fined for refusing the breathalyser, he offered 112 leva (not endearing himself to the police officer by throwing it at his feet) and was promptly handcuffed and led back into the police station as pre-trial proceedings were initiated for attempted bribery.
As September began to draw to a close, two court cases began in Plovdiv for attempted bribery.
In one, a motorcyclist who had been stopped and was found to have no driving licence, on top of his bike having no licence plate, offered 20 leva. In the other case, a motorist who was stopped in Bulgaria’s second city and found to have a blood-alcohol level of more than three times the limit offered 170 leva, and again, the handcuffs clicked.
Also in the Veliko Turnovo area, a village resident who was found to be over the alcohol limit was arrested after putting 30 leva on the seat of the police car. When his friend climbed into the police car to remonstrate with police, he too was arrested, for obstruction.
On September 24, Bulgarian daily 24 Chassa reported Interior Minister Tsvetlin Yovchev as saying that traffic police random checks on the roads should be stopped, and rather than accepting bribes, police should be diverted to tracking down burglars.
An opinion piece published by the same daily rejected the argument that random checks on the road by police helped keep down crimes such as car theft. No correlation could be found in the statistics to prove this argument, the article said.
Of course, the main problem is attempting to assess the extent of corruption among bodies such as the traffic police is, quite obviously, a lack of record-keeping on the part of those involved, the motorist and the traffic officer. Evidence largely tends to be anecdotal, but the facts that have emerged about the September 2011 may be useful.
In September 2011, prosecutors and police descended on a group of traffic police after a covert surveillance operation that had lasted more than two months. The operation also involved undercover officers, dressed as civilians and driving private cars, who deliberately flouted traffic laws and then offered bribes.
The record of the traffic police checked in the operation was, to say the least, dismal. Of 60 teams checked, only one did not take bribes – and that was the one in which members were co-operating in the covert operation.
The investigation, in a series of operations, started after foreign and local motorists complained to the Interior Ministry about being racketeered by traffic police.
From accounts that have emerged from prosecutions of the traffic police arrested, there were sophisticated elements to the corruption schemes. Traffic police who were bribed had a method of deleting records from speed cameras (fee for deletion: 20 to 50 leva) – but also had a method, allegedly, of manipulating cameras so as to “show” that motorists had been speeding when they had not.
At the end of a shift, money gained in bribes would be put into a cap and the spoils divided. By some accounts, traffic police got up to 1000 leva a shift in this way.
As a precaution against raids by inspectors, traffic police would hide their takings for collection later, for example by rolling the cash into a cigarette packet and concealing it in a highway advertising billboard or a metal crash barrier.
Prosecutions are underway of 12 now-former traffic police, nine from Pazardzhik, two from Plovdiv and one from Sofia. Criminal charges include accepting bribes and, in eight of the cases, membership of an organised crime group. The four other accused are said by prosecutors to have been acting independently.
The traffic police variously either accepted bribes offered or actively solicited them: “What do we do now? Let’s not ruin your day. If you want, you can leave something”.
Or, more bizarrely, in the case of a Greek citizen who was stopped for speeding: “Ouzo, ouzo, we drink ouzo”.
The ouzo drinkers are currently in custody.