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News 01 Dec 17

Albania Prosecutors Probe Opposition's US Lobbying Payments

After a BIRN Albania report lifted the lid on the matter of payments to US lobbyists, Albania's prosecutor office is investigating possible fraud or falsification in opposition party's financial statements.

Vladimir Karaj

Democratic Party leader Lulzim Basha. Photo: LSA

Following a BIRN Albania investigation, Albania's General Prosecutor on Thursday said the Tirana District Prosecutors had opened an investigation into the Democratic Party's acounts about how much it had spent on US lobbying companies.

The head of the Tirana District Prosecution, Petrit Fusha, told BIRN that they were collecting documents about the party's lobbying contracts in Washington. Requests for information had been sent to the party and to the Central Election Commission.

Prosecutors were alerted after a BIRN investigation published on 22 November found that during the campaign for the 25 June parliamentary elections, the party signed two contracts with the US lobbyists Stonington Strategies to secure meetings with senior figures in President Donald Trump's administration.

The contracts were reported on 14 November to the US Justice Department by Stoning Strategies.

The company said it received two payments from the Democratic Party totalling 525,000 US dollars plus a third payment of 150,000 US dollars from “Biniatta Trade LP” - a shell company registered in Scotland under the ownership of two Belize-based companies.

The direct contract between the Democratic Party and Stonington Strategies was reported to the US Justice Department in March 2017 while the contract through “Biniatta Trade LP" was reported in November.

But none of these payments was noted in the financial report that the Democratic Party filed to the Central Election Commission on this year's electoral campaign.

On the official website of the Election Commission, the DP financial report shows only payments for two other contracts with the lobby firm Barnes and Thornburg LLP, for 12.6 million leks, equal to about 94,000 euros.

The party has issued conflicting statements in relation to the lobbying bills. Earlier, it told BIRN that it paid only 125,000 US dollars for lobbying in the US, and denied any connection with “Biniatta Trade LP”.

After the publication of BIRN Investigation, the leader of the party, Lulzim Basha, called the case a matter of "smoke bombs and lies", but later the party declared in a press release that its lobbying contracts had been declared to the US Department of Justice.

On Thursday, Basha told parliament that Socialist Party claims about money laundering were "a deception to avoid the truth" about Prime Minister Edi Rama, former Interior Minister, Saimir Tahiri, and other ruling Socialist officials accused repeatedly by the opposition of having criminal ties.

"The DP had delivered all its spending to the Central Election Commission based on the law. The DP has nothing to hide," Basha told parliament.

Asked by BIRN about the financial statements, the head of the Central Election Commission, Klement Zguri, said this institution publicised the statements on 13 November, "as they has been delivered [to it] by the parties".

Hefty payments made by politicians to US lobbyists were a theme of debate in parliament's Thursday session. The head of the Socialist parliamentary group, Taulant Balla, said he would file criminal charges against the DP to prosecutors.

The Democratic Party is not the only party in Albania that has paid hefty sums to influence US policies.

The governing Socialist Party signed a 240,000 dollar contract with US-based Ballard Partners before the elections.

BIRN also found earlier this year that the Socialist Movement for Integration had failed to report to the Election Commission part of its 300,000 dollar lobbying expenditure.

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