Government officials defend waste incinerators in testimony in Parliament – Release

The parliamentary inquiry committee on waste incinerators in Albania has completed all hearings, with an unprecedented live broadcast of Prime Minister Edi Rama’s 10 a.m. testimony on Wednesday.

Created at the request of the opposition, during its 4-month mandate, the committee investigated the procedures that led to the approval and construction of three waste treatment plants in Fier, Elbasan and Tirana by through concession agreements.

The Albanian government approved contracts for the construction and operation of these incinerators at different stages, after a newly created company – with no capital or experience – presented a proposal for Elbasan in 2014.

Exit News was the first outlet to publish an in-depth analysis of the projects in 2017 by Artan Rama, sounding the alarm that a corruption scandal might be lurking behind the case.

To date, the Elbasan incinerator has been completed, but the plant is not operational and has been seized by the prosecution on suspicion of corruption. The Fier incinerator is still under construction, while work on the Tirana plant has not yet started.

In all three cases, the deadlines for carrying out the work are exceeded by several years. The government has paid the company more than €55 million for the Elbasan and Fier incinerators, and about €37 million for Tirana so far.

A network of dozens of other companies was created by the owners of “Integrated Energy BV SPV” to pay tens of millions for services that were never obtained.

The concession agreements estimate that at least 430 million euros of public money will have to be paid to private companies owned by the same people until 2047.

An investigation was opened by the Special Anti-Corruption and Organized Crime Prosecutor’s Office (SPAK), and former Environment Minister Lefter Koka was arrested on suspicion of corruption in December 2021.

Dealers Klodian Zoto and Stela Gugallja are wanted by police, while a third person, Mirel Mertiri, is believed to be involved behind the curtain as the third owner.

The opposition argues that this whole corruption affair was led by Prime Minister Edi Rama, along with corrupt officials and businessmen who together created what amounts to a “structured criminal group”, such as defined by Albanian law.

The then ministers Damian Gjiknuri, Arben Ahmetaj, Lefter Koka, Belinda Balluku and the mayor of Tirana Erion Veliaj were part of this alleged criminal group, according to the opposition charges.

More than a dozen officials, company employees and journalists have testified before the commission over the past three days. Although no substantial new evidence emerged during the televised sessions, the show caught the public’s attention, culminating in a 10-hour back-and-forth between the Prime Minister and opposition members of the committee. led by Democratic Congresswoman Jorida Tabaku.

All of the company’s officers and employees have denied any wrongdoing while avoiding most questions about specific procedures and decisions.

Here are the summaries of the most relevant testimonials.

Testimony of Prime Minister Edi Rama

Rama focused his 10 hour testimony on two elements. Firstly, he vehemently denied the allegations of a “structured criminal group”, stressing that the responsibility is only personal. He praised the work of the government with the incinerators, its collaboration with all the ministers concerned and said he was proud of the cleanliness of the Albanian thanks to these incinerators.

Second, Rama has repeatedly pointed out that the €430m price tag claimed by the opposition is not true. He accused MP Jorida Tabaku of manipulating the public into believing that he had already paid this amount directly out of his pocket for the past seven years, and clarified that in reality the sum is closer to 90 million euros. Tabaku again explained that the amount of 430 million euros is provided for in the waste incineration service contracts over 30 years, i.e. until 2047.

Rama denied any wrongdoing, strongly defended Albania’s incinerators as an “environmental revolution” and underlined his confidence in the new judicial institutions. He dodged almost all questions about procedures and decision-making, saying he only cared about the end result: a clean country.

None of the eight members of the committee of his socialist party asked questions to his leader during the 10 hours of testimony.

In his characteristic sarcastic tone, Rama summed up the events in the following terms: The corrupt business of 430 million euros was undertaken by a structured criminal group which he led himself, in order that it be discovered by the leader of the opposition Lulzim Basha, who would then push Parliament to set up a commission of inquiry with the support of foreign embassies, and to emerge as a hero from the whole affair.

Testimony of former Finance Minister Arben Ahmetaj

Deputy Prime Minister Arben Ahmetaj, also a former finance minister when the contracts were approved, was also asked if he knew the concession owners, he said he had ‘no business, professional or family relationship’ with any of them. He gave the same answer when asked if he had been in a car accident abroad while traveling with one of them, Mirel Mertiri.

The opposition argues that police data shows Ahmetaj traveled abroad 12 times with one of the owners during the period 2012-2019.

Testimony of former Finance Minister Shkelqim Cani

Former finance minister Shkelqim Cani, replaced by Arben Ahmeti in 2016, dodged the question of whether it was his refusal to approve incinerator concession contracts that led to his dismissal.

Testimony of former Minister of Infrastructure Damian Gjiknuri

Former infrastructure minister Damian Gjiknuri was asked if he had met Klodian Zoto and Mirel Mertiri, the two main owners of the three concessionaires. He replied that he didn’t have a close relationship with them but had worked with Zoto in one of his previous jobs and had been classmates with Mertiri. Opposition MPs claimed he traveled with them seven times between 2012 and 2019, according to Border Police records, to which Gjiknuri replied that it was a coincidence that they were on the same flights . Asked about the overall success of the incinerator projects, he replied that the road from Albania to Kosovo, built under the government of Sali Berisha, was much worse and more expensive.

Testimony of the Mayor of Tirana Erion Veliaj

Tirana Mayor Erion Veliaj was asked if his March 2017 approval of Tirana’s incinerator concessionaire was based on a decision by the city council, as required by law. Veliaj confirmed and provided the mid-term budget approved by the Council in September 2017. Tabaku warned the mayor that he was lying under oath. She argued that the document he presented was approved six months after it was signed and was not a Council decision approving the construction of the incinerator. Veliaj insisted that one of the mid-term budget items states that “the mayor is responsible for implementing the obligations” of the municipality. Following Tabaku’s allegations against him for lying under oath, Veliaj changed his account, stating that his approval was only “in principle”, and later that a Council decision in this matter was not a decision. legal requirement after all. He then followed up with sexist remarks against Tabaku, saying she was asking “hysterical” questions.

Secretary General of the Council of Minister Engjell Agaci Testimony

The Secretary General of the Council of Ministers, Engjell Agaci, defended the procedures relating to his institution and denied having pressured anyone or being pressured by the Prime Minister. Asked how he explained the conclusion of 17 incinerator procedures concluded in a single day by a dozen central and local government institutions, he said it was thanks to an electronic system installed in 2010.

Testimony of Minister of Infrastructure Belinda Balluku

Infrastructure Minister Belinda Balluku denied any responsibility for monitoring the implementation of concession contracts. She said that it was a unit with officials from several ministries that was responsible for it.

Fier Incinerator Administrator Testimonial

Loran Dusha, the administrator of the Fier incinerator, has repeatedly stated that he does not recall important facts such as why the company made a transfer of 23 million euros to one of its owners, as well as a number of other smaller transactions.

The commission of inquiry is very likely to come up with two reports along party lines, with the opposition saying it was a huge corruption case and the ruling party defending the incinerator project as a “revolution environment”, despite repeated criticism from the European Union. Union in recent years as it was the least favorable option for waste disposal.

It remains unclear whether changes to the legislation will be proposed by the opposition, in order to avoid similar situations in the future, which is usually one of the main objectives of these commissions.

Their findings will be presented to the special prosecution, although there is little new evidence to include in the case.

Last week’s televised testimonies made the “incinerator affair” a major topic of public debate for Albanians. It remains to be seen how far special prosecutors will pursue the case in their investigations, seven years after the red flags were raised by Exit News, followed by further investigations on other independent outlets like BIRN.

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