Meta Attacks BIRN in Albanian Corruption Row

In a tense debate in parliament on the CEZ-DIA corruption allegations, Meta attacked BIRN, the law firm Clifford Chance and many others in what he called a ‘mafioso operation’ against him.
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Albania’s Speaker of Parliament, Ilir Meta, on Thursday angrily denied allegations of taking bribes following BIRN’s investigations into corrupt dealings involving the electricity distributor CEZ Shperndarje and the debt collection company DIA. Faced with calls to resign, Meta said there was a “Mafioso” conspiracy against him and blamed BIRN for connecting him to the CEZ-DIA corruption allegations and to the arrested businessmen, Kastriot Ismailaj.

He spoke as parliament debated a proposal from the opposition Democratic Party to hire foreign prosecutors to investigate events when the Albanian wing of CEZ was owned by the Czech giant CEZ. The motion was dismissed by 54 votes to 50. “In relation to this story that seems to have been started by a very ‘serious’ agency like BIRN, and by a legal consultant hired by the current government… I can say with full conviction that everything is clear,” Meta said. “Everything has been thoughtfully studied, but the whole operation is wretched, because it is based on falsifications,” he added.

BIRN has published three investigations in recent months alleging corruption in a debt collection deal involving CEZ and DIA.

Speaker Meta has been accused of graft in an arbitrage case in Vienna.

On June 2015, BIRN revealed that former CEZ chief Hejsek and Ismailaj, an Albanian businessman, were suspected of setting up a false debt-collection scheme with aim of creating a channel to distribute bribes to Albanian officials to obtain a better business environment for the power distributor. Ismailaj had since been arrested in Albania.

CEZ had 200 million euro in uncollected debts at the time and the deal allegedly allowed DIA to collect the cash and also take a slice, and then transfer the money as bribes to local officials. CEZ bought the electricity distribution network, then named OSSH, in 2009. The aim was to overhaul the business and profit from its experience as one of the major electricity companies in the region. However, the business went sour and the Albanian energy regulator ended its license in January 2013, effectively renationalizing it.

In the meantime, after DIA’s agreement with CEZ was terminated in 2011, it raised a claim in the Vienna Arbitrage Court, claiming 130 million euros for breach of contract. The utility company hired the international law firm Clifford Chance to face off DIA’s claim.

On September 2015, BIRN published the motion to dismiss the case filed by Clifford Chance in Vienna, which alleged that Meta had been one of the beneficiaries of a fraudulent payment of €4.5 million from CEZ to DIA in 2010 and 2011. “Beneath the transferees [beneficiaries] of the money DIA gained from Respondent [CEZ] were… leading Albanian politicians, including at least one past Prime Minister who has been charged with corruption,” Clifford Chance wrote, thus presenting the contract between CEZ and DIA as fraudulent and DIA’s claim as baseless.

On 8 September, BIRN revealed testimony given for the arbitrage case by Hejsek, which said that when CEZ bought the utility in 2010 and sought a business partner to facilitate dealings with local officials, Meta used the Albanian ambassador in Prague to refer them to Ismailaj as someone who enjoyed the support of the government.

After the BIRN investigation was published, the office of the Prime Minister Edi Rama said in a press release said it had asked Clifford Chance about Meta’s involvement and the law firm had answered that it had “not named Meta by name as a beneficiary”. In parliament on Thursday, Meta said both the institutions and the people involved in making the allegations were untrustworthy. He said that Clifford Chance had been employed by the previous rightwing government and had carried out “other services for the previous government” – and that his name had been included in the BIRN investigation “in a manipulative way”.

Meta said that DIA had only one of the contracts for CEZ’s debt collection services, so it was unfair to concentrate only on this company alone. He added that Hejsek – whose testimony linked him and former Prime Minister Sali Berisha with Ismailaj – was also untrustworthy because of disagreements that they had from the time when Meta was Minister of the Economy and was working to protect consumers’ interests against CEZ. Meta also dismissed the testimony of a witness in the arbitration case, known only by his initials E.M, but who is known to have previously worked for DIA. Meta said that this witness had once been a member of his party, the Socialist Movement for Integration, but had been “thrown out” due to a “conflict of passion with another youngster there”.

BIRN

2 October 2015