Investigations may be hanging over two local party leaders – but that prospect does not seem to threaten their years-long grip on power in the seaside town of Ulcinj.
|Ulcinj. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.
Ulcinj’s former mayor and Democratic Party leader, Fatmir Djeka, could once again become mayor of the troubled seaside town if he wins the local elections in Montenegro in January – despite a slew of unanswered questions about the town’s chaotic finances hanging over his head.
Smoking one cigarette after another at the café Piano in the town centre, the waiter brings him drinks that other guests have treated him to. “It is common knowledge; the people of Ulcinj are for Djeka,” he boasts.
If so, that might seem surprising. Since March, the special prosecutor’s office for organized crime and corruption has been investigating the use of budget funds in Ulcinj for the time when Djeka was mayor from 2014 to 2016, when he resigned.
Power in the local assembly then regrouped. His party remained in a ruling coalition with its rival, Forca, but has been weakened by the arrival of a newcomer, the main national ruling party, the Democratic Party of Socialists, DPS.
Djeka, meanwhile, is unrepentant about his record. He insists that Forca and its leader, Ulcinj’s current mayor, Nazif Cungu, are doing whatever it takes to compromise him before the elections, sending material about his alleged abuses to the special prosecutor.
“I would like someone to step up and say in the open if they know that Fatmir Djeka did something [wrong] … I did not do anything in my own interest … but in the interests of the city… everything was correct, in accordance with the regulations and the laws,” he says.
An independent investigation by BIRN and CIN-CG casts doubt on that assertion.
It shows that the office of Mayor Djeka, despite the town’s financial woes and frequent freezing of its accounts, exceeded its planned budget by at least 135,000 euros in 2015 alone.
It spent budget money, among other things, on buying perfumes and leather goods, which Djeka says were gifts for various delegations and women working in the municipality.
Some of the invoices for purchased goods appear also to have been photo-shopped.
The price of leather bags for councillors, for example, has been altered from 179 euros to 500 euros, to align the figure on the invoice with the amount on the bank payment order.
Much else that was ordered has gone missing. Leather furniture, air-conditioning units, dining tables and chairs and many other things were all invoiced to the mayor’s office.
However, they can no longer be traced, according to the findings of a municipal committee that has carried out an inventory.
Some suspect also that construction material that the municipality ordered ahead of 2009 general elections, the 2010 local elections and the 2016 general elections was used to buy votes for Djeka’s Democratic Party.
|Former Ulcinj’s mayor Fatmir Djeka. Photo: Democratic Party.
Documents obtained by BIRN and CIN-CG also point to possible avoidance of the public procurement procedures.
However, confronted with the array of findings, Djeka defends himself robustly. “These are malicious, politicized questions… We have only one term for this: ‘A tall tree attracts much wind,’” he said.
Current Mayor Cungu meanwhile insists that he has not informed the state prosecutor about his predecessor’s suspected abuses for political reasons but because it is his responsibility to do so.
“If, as mayor, I am informed about missing goods, then I need to inform the prosecution, so that they can check whether some criminal act has taken place,” he said.
However, two independent sources in the special prosecutor’s office for organized crime and corruption confirmed to BIRN and CIN-CG that Cungu himself is also under its investigation, although no details about this investigation have been released.
|Current Ulcinj’s mayor Nazif Cungu. Photo: Youtube screenshot.
Cungu insists he knows nothing about that investigation.
“I don’t know. They came to the municipality, and what they took, I never asked about afterwards, I just tried to be helpful, so they could find any document they needed,” he said.
Many investigations, but no trials in court:
|Village got power poles that were never connected
In the narrow lanes of the village of Lisna Bori , on the hill above Ulcinj, near the Albanian border, stand concrete power supply poles that have been placed in the ground.
Lisna Bori is just one of several underdeveloped villages in the region Vladimir, whose residents have paid a price for Ulcinj’s party battles before elections; the power poles have never been connected to the electricity supply.
“We had some requests from the border region,” Djeka recalled. “This area did not have a town plan, and we acted on the request of the local communities to help them.
Poles were placed in the right positions and locals dug the holes themselves and erected them for free.”
His office duly ordered a hundred such poles, and accompanying equipment, worth 41,000, instead of the Secretariat for Utility Works, as envisaged by the rulebook.
The poles came from the Elektrofor company in Podgorica. The procurement was carried during December 2015 and early January 2016. Most of these invoices were signed off by Djeka.
Intriguingly, all the invoices were for sums below 5,000 euros. They thereby circumvented public procurement rules according to which, at that time, a public call including at least three bids from different suppliers was necessary if the value of the order exceeded 5,000 euros.
In a single day, this company issued three invoices for a total of 14,000 euros, each of which was just under the 5,000 limit.
Djeka claims there was due competition for the order for the poles. However, the reports delivered by the municipality to the Public Procurements Administration for 2015 and 2016 reveal no record of any public call for bids.
The sudden erection of the power poles in September, several months after Djeka resigned, just a month before the elections, took the municipality by surprise.
Deputy Mayor Hatidza Djoni, from the Democratic Union of Albanians, remembers how they received reports from citizens saying that poles for electricity were being placed in villages around Ulcinj.
The communal police who are part of the town’s administration then went into the field and stopped the work.
Villagers that we approached in Lisna Bori did not want to comment on the failed initiative.
Although the town of 22,000 people, 70 per cent of whom are ethnic Albanian, has been unlucky with its leaders, Montenegro’s national authorities have been curiously reluctant to pursue matters to court.
Over the last ten years, although mayors, directors of public companies, and leaders of parties have all come under investigation, hardly any trials have ever taken place.
One of the oldest towns on the Adriatic coast, blessed with long sandy beaches, Ulcinj ought to be far more prosperous than it is.
Instead, the municipal bank account is often frozen, and successful local companies are few. The average salary, at 428 euros a month, is 20 per cent below the national average in Montenegro.
The Democratic Party and Forca have been fighting for the Albanian votes for years.
Leaders of both parties have rotated as mayors, and although the parties are rivals, they still rule the town together in coalition. Cooperation, however, is not smooth.
As a result of the fights between the parties in 2014 and 2015, when Djeka was mayor, the local assembly failed to vote on the annual accounts, which resulted in the breakup of the coalition.
Due to the lack of a working majority in the assembly, its operations were blocked for months.
Andrija Cetkovic, the councilor from the small opposition Socialist People’s Party, who has often attacked what he calls the council’s reckless spending, describes the political feuds in Ulcinj as pure theatre.
“They fight by day and then make up by night,” he said.
“The fighting lasts until they get a sufficient number of votes, and then they usually form a coalition and assume office. Then they rotate: one minute it’s one mayor and then it’s the other. They always leave suspicious deals behind them, but this is never seen through,” he said.
Gzim Hajdinaga, a party colleague of Djeka’s, a former minister in the Montenegrin government for human and minority rights, was mayor from 2006 to 2011 while Djeka was the municipal secretary for finances.
In 2012, Hajdinaga signed a settlement with the high state prosecutor, so that instead of standing trial for abuse of office and enabling illegal construction to the detriment of the municipality, he gave 10,000 euros to the local maternity hospital.
He was recently appointed director of Berza struje, a new mainly state-owned energy company in Montenegro.
In the meantime, an investigation continues into the affairs of the Hotel Galeb whose investor was allowed to tear it down in 2008 – when Hajdinaga was a mayor – without ever investing the promised 15 million euros.
Hajdinaga was succeeded by Cungu who was mayor from 2011 to 2013.
In 2014 the prosecutor opened an investigation against Cungu over dealings related to the repurposing of state land at the Sas site in Ulcinj. Allegedly, he engineered the adoption of town planning rules enabling construction in that area, where he, too, owned land.
In May 2014, however, the basic state prosecutor’s office dropped criminal charges.
One source from the Special prosecutor’s office said the investigation into the Sas case is still ongoing, while another source released no details about the case, but said the investigation was nearing its end.
The basic state prosecutor’s office in Ulcinj investigated Djeka’s management of the public water and sewage company, Vodovod i kanalizacija, from 2010 to 2012, for illegally hiring 79 people.
That probe ended with Djeka agreeing instead to pay 1,200 euros to a facility for children with special needs……………..
Missing purchases include 14 air-conditioners, 11 carpets and mats, five sets of leather furniture and closets, 20 dining chairs, a dining table, six mobile phones, four laptops, two projectors, seven printers, several office desks, two vacuum cleaners, shelves and more.
The municipal committee that in June this year conducted an inventory for 2014, 2015 and 2016 said the total value of the missing items amounted 31,125.80 euros.
The assembly session on October 26 voted to form a committee to investigate what had happened with these items…………………………..