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Bulgarian tycoon hires US lobbyist after family targeted in probes tied to political infighting

Plamen Bobokov (Prista Oil Group/Facebook)

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

One of Bulgaria’s wealthiest businessmen has hired a U.S. firm to lobby his family’s interests in Washington as his home country’s prosecutors investigate him on allegations of waste mismanagement and corruption that some say are politically motivated.

Plamen Bobokov, the co-founder of a Sofia-based energy business, hired Alexandria Group International at the start of the month, according to Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) documents published by the Justice Department on July 17.

Alexandria Group has strong ties to the Balkan region.

Bobokov and his brother Atanas Bobokov, founders and owners of Prista Oil Group, were first detained at the end of May on suspicion of being part of a criminal group that mismanaged hazardous waste in Bulgaria. Deputy Environment Minister Krasimir Zhivkov was also detained at the time. The men deny the allegations.

But then Bulgarian prosecutors arrested Bobokov again on July 9 along with Plamen Uzunov and Ilia Milushev, advisers to President Rumen Radev, on suspicion of peddling influence following a raid earlier that day at the office of the presidency.

Prosecutors published text messages between Bobokov and Uzunov that showed they discussed foreign-policy issues, including ambassadorial appointments. Bobokov is Bulgaria’s honorary consul to Ukraine.

The raids on Radev’s associates and the arrests of the Bobokovs are viewed locally as the latest in a long history of abuses by Bulgaria’s governing elites and politicized prosecutors against their rivals. Though Bobokov has been released, his brother remains in jail.

Tensions between Radev and the government led by Prime Minister Boyko Borisov had been growing prior to the raid. Radev on July 11 called for the government and prosecutor general to resign, animating a nascent anti-corruption protest movement against the rule of Borisov that is now entering its 10th day.

Alexandria Group will “contact key members of both houses of the U.S. Congress and U.S. administration officials from relevant departments and agencies in Washington, U.S. Embassy Sofia, and elsewhere abroad” to advance Bobokov’s goals regarding his human rights, civil liberties, and the overall rule of law in Bulgaria, the lobbying documents stated.

Managing partner Marshall Harris, who is leading the lobbying efforts, served as a U.S. Foreign Service officer in Bulgaria and Macedonia. Partner John Menzies was a Foreign Service officer in Bulgaria during the communist period and later ambassador to Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Alexandria Group did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Harris told RFE/RL that “Bulgaria’s citizens have taken to the streets to bring down their government peaceably and democratically. They are direct victims of the utter corruption of Prime Minister Borisov, or Prosecutor-General [Ivan] Geshev, and their henchmen.”

“Atanas Bobokov is being held in jail in deplorable, inhumane conditions that mock EU standards,” he added.

“The false charges against Atanas and his brother Plamen are part of the Bulgarian authorities’ systematic attempt at ‘criminal capture’ of legitimate businesses through physical harm, intimidation, malicious prosecution, attempted extortion, trial by state-controlled media, and other abuses of the rule of law.”

Bobokov already has U.S. government ties.

Last year, his Prista Oil hired Francis John Bray as a board member just days after the official left his post as U.S. consul-general in Nigeria.

Bray served almost 30 years in the U.S. diplomatic corps, including nearly 20 years in sub-Saharan Africa, according to the Prista Oil statement.

Prista is seeking business opportunities in sub-Saharan Africa.

The Bobokovs’ Prista Oil produces and distributes motor oils and industrial lubricants, including under the Texaco brand. It has factories in Bulgaria and Uzbekistan and sells its products throughout Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. The brothers also own a controlling stake in Monbat AD, a battery and recycling company at the center of the waste-management investigation.

The brothers in 2016 bought back a 30 percent stake in Prista Oil owned by foreign investors using part of a 50 million-euro ($57 million) loan, implying a possible company valuation at that time of close to $200 million.