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Cablegate: Prosecutors Investigate Refugee Housing Scam

This record is a partial extract of the original cable. The full text of the original cable is not available.

UNCLAS ZAGREB 000377

SIPDIS


SENSITIVE

DEPT FOR EUR/SCE: JMITCHELL
BELGRADE FOR DSALAZAR

E.O. 12958: N/A
TAGS: PREF PGOV HR
SUBJECT: Prosecutors Investigate Refugee Housing Scam

SENSITIVE BUT UNCLASSIFIED. PLEASE HANDLE ACCORDINGLY.


SUMMARY and COMMENT

1. (SBU) In mid-February, the Croatian Office for Combating
Corruption and Organized Crime (USKOK) began investigating
possible illegal sales of refugee Serb houses to the
Croatian State Agency for Refugee Property (APN).
Intermediaries in Serbia and Montenegro (SAM), supposedly
representing Serb owners of property in Croatia, allegedly
used forged documents to sell houses to APN without the
owners' knowledge. Officials from APN and the GoC's
Office for Displaced Persons and Refugees (ODPR), private
agencies and one Croatian bank may have been involved in
the fraud, which could affect thousands of families. While
it is encouraging that these cases are finally being
investigated, and a sign that the GoC is willing to respect
the rule of law even where the Serbian minority is
concerned, the problem may prove both embarrassing and
expensive for the GoC: eventual compensation for defrauded
owners could run into millions of dollars. End Summary and
Comment.

HOUSING SCAM RUMORED, THEN UNCOVERED

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2. (SBU) In December 2004, ethnic Serb MPs publicized the
cases of two Croatian Serbs living in SAM whose houses were
sold based on falsified power of attorney. They asked APN
to freeze further activity until the State Prosecutor and
State Auditor could investigate contracts on 8,300 houses
purchased since 1997, for which the state spent about 200
million Euros. An estimated 80 percent of these contracts
were signed through power of attorney and a large
percentage is potentially fraudulent. The MPs suspect that
between four and eight million Euros ended up in the
pockets of APN officials and mediating agencies. The NGO
Association for Civil Alternatives and Ethnic Relations has
taken the lead in helping potential victims, presenting 59
cases to USKOK in which power of attorney was falsified.
USKOK is investigating those cases and APN's role, although
they told Post they do not have capacity to check thousands
of suspect contracts. USKOK has indications of hundreds of
cases where the mediating agencies paid significantly less
to owners than APN paid for the property.

MODALITIES OF FRAUD

3. (SBU) Perpetrators developed several schemes to make
money from home sales. The most extreme form consisted of
forging documents and selling homes without the owners'
knowledge. More commonly, APN allegedly teamed up with
intermediary agencies and drafted double contracts, which
differed only in price. The higher-priced contract was
filed and the lower-priced contract was given to the owner,
with the APN official and the intermediary splitting the
difference. Croatian Serb refugees with dual citizenship
were best equipped to establish such intermediary agencies
and travel between the two countries.

4. (U) The press reported that an agency owned by siblings
from Kostajnica, Dusanka and Dusko Borojevic, operating in
Sabac in SAM, made a fortune on such contracts. The
prosecution's investigation showed that they concluded at
least 450 contracts and the average difference ranged
between 15,000 and 20,000 German marks per contract. A
Serbian lawyer representing the owners filed a criminal
report for Croatian prosecutors in 2001 against the
siblings (who are dual citizens of Croatia and SAM) and
three APN staff, but only the siblings were indicted.

5. (SBU) A third form of fraud was the purchase of
nonexistent property, discovered during the internal APN
audit in 2001. For example, former APN Director Davor
Rajcic signed a purchase of a house in Glina, but the audit
showed only land at that location, where no house ever
existed. On other occasions, agencies forged powers of
attorney for deceased individuals to sell houses.

APN'S ROLE

6. (SBU) APN has been notorious for its lack of
transparency; rumors of impropriety have circulated for
years. The media and NGOs are now highlinghting serious
procedural omissions in APN's contracting. Namely,
contracts often lacked significant data about owners'
identity, such as their unique identification number.
Observers point out that cumbersome bureaucratic procedures
(such as home assessments, two inspections, price

negotiation and notarization) could be completed in one or
two days in a notoriously-protracted Croatian bureaucracy;
closing on the purchase of a house at the speed of light
heightened suspicion about APN's role in the frauds.
Documents indicate that APN staff provided certain agents
in SAM with information needed to forge sales documents.
Based on this information, SAM officials arrested the head
of the MiS NS Real Estate Agency in Novi Sad.

TAKING CORRECTIVE ACTION

7. (SBU) PM Sanader appointed APN's current President
Vladimir Goatti in September 2004 after complaints began to
mount about irregularities in APN's conduct. Goatti said
he intends to get to the bottom of the scandal and has
recently introduced a number of measures to prevent further
illegal activity. One such measure is a freeze on all
further activity. Another is to limit APN's acceptance of
powers of attorney to three courts in SAM and the Croatian
Consulate. However, Post has been told that on several
occasions APN has refused to hand over contract copies to
unwitting owners whose houses were sold, and refused
several requests through power of attorney from the
mentioned courts, quoting internal procedures. Goatti has
also said that he will take steps to annul falsified
contracts, presumably after court action.

8. (SBU) USKOK is proceeding with its investigation, which
it expects will take several months. Dinko Cvitan, Deputy
of USKOK estimated that "several hundred" individuals could
have been swindled, although USKOK will not be able to
examine thousands of documents. Defrauded owners, he
explained, must file a criminal suit against the GOC. Even
so, the barriers remain daunting: deceived owners can only
annul forged contracts by filing a criminal suit against
the GOC, which requires documents from APN files (not
obtainable at the moment because of the ongoing
investigation) or from inefficient local land registries.
In addition, court fees are based on the property value and
average 2,000 Euros - prohibitively expensive for many
refugees. In addition, many owners may not be aware that
their property was sold.

9. (SBU) The international community, with the GOC, is
exploring options to ease the burden of owners who are
victims of the scams. Post and others may suggest that APN
provide copies of relevant documents to owners, that the
GOC and its SAM counterparts verify powers of
attorney, or, as Goatti indicated, that the GOC find an
amicable settlement with owners to nullify false contracts.FRANK


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