Bulgaria’s biggest private gambling operator has been charged with extortion and attempted bribery just as the country moves to bring all lottery operations under control of the state.
On Wednesday, Bulgaria’s chief prosecutor Ivan Geshev announced criminal charges against Vasil Bozhkov, who controls National Lottery AD, the country’s largest private gambling operator. Law enforcement agents raided Boshkov’s home and offices as well as the offices of the country’s gambling regulator.
Geshev said the country would “make every effort to take Bozhkov to court,” adding that Interpol had issued a ‘red notice’ that asks member nations to detain Geshev if he crosses their borders pending extradition proceedings.
Bozhkov later gave an interview to Bulgaria’s bTV from what he described as a ‘non-European Union’ location. Bozhkov expressed ignorance of the charges against him, claiming he was “ready to show up immediately if [prosecutors] want me” while opining that the charges represented “a gross violation of the laws.”
Several years ago, Wikileaks released a 2005 US diplomatic cable that identified Bozhkov’s alleged connections to “money laundering, privatization fraud, intimidation, extortion and racketeering.”
In addition to National Lottery, Bozhkov’s gambling investments include lottery scratchcard operator New Games as well as Eurofootball Ltd and its EFbet and Eurobet sport betting brands. Last spring, Bozhkov took control of one of Bulgaria’s biggest football clubs, PFC Levski Sofia.
GAMBLING LAW CHANGES IN THE WORKS
The charges against Bozhkov were made public shortly after Bulgaria’s parliament approved the first reading of proposed amendments to the Gambling Act that will prohibit all lotteries not operated by the state-run Bulgarian Sports Totalizator. The bill was introduced following allegations that private operators had underpaid their taxes and fees by BGN210m (US$118m) over the past six years.
Assuming the bill is enacted, all private lottery operators would be required to cease operations within 90 days but will be given only 30 days in which to provide the state with financial guarantees to cover any unpaid prize winnings.
The bill also calls for a restructuring of the Gambling Commission, based on what Finance Minister Vladislav Goranov previously described as “contradictory decisions” made in recent years” that suggested “there are accumulated faults that must be fixed.” Commission chief Alexander Georgiev was taken in for questioning by authorities on Wednesday, along with 18 of his underlings.
Bulgaria’s gambling regulator has licensed a number of international online gambling brands, including Bet365, Bwin and PokerStars. The regulator also maintains an active blacklist of internationally licensed sites that serve the market without local permission in a bid to boost the money flowing through the government’s coffers.