Slovenia’s New Top Covid-19 Contractor Sells Office Supplies

Published: 08 April 2020

Face masksAuthorities in Slovenia have awarded nearly 130 million euros of contracts under emergency measures. (Photo: David Stewart (CC BY 2.0))

By Matej Zwitter and Anuška Delić (Oštro)

A company that sells office supplies and fashion items has become the latest vendor chosen to supply Slovenia with healthcare equipment to fight the coronavirus pandemic under emergency measures introduced by the government.

Slovenia’s Agency for Commodity Reserves published a new batch of tenders for equipment to fight the COVID-19 outbreak late last week, raising the total value of contracts awarded in the southeastern European nation to 129.2 million euros (US$140 million).

The biggest supplier is now Acron, a trading company based in a small town in the country’s northeast which has no known experience in the healthcare sector and deals mostly in office supplies and fashion products.

Acron was awarded three different contracts to supply protective masks, worth a total of 29.7 million euros ($32 million). Together the contracts would represent 138 percent of the company’s total income in 2018, the last year for which public records are available.

Slovenia has introduced strict controls on movement and gatherings to curb the spread of the virus, while approving tens of millions of euros worth of bids under emergency measures that bypass open tenders.

Last week, Oštro and OCCRP reported that Slovenia’s initial batch of COVID-19 contracts, worth some 80 million euros ($87 millon), had been awarded to several companies that did not appear to have experience in the health sector or healthcare equipment, including a mangosteen juice vendor and a firm belonging to a gambling tycoon.

"Even in emergencies governments should perform basic due diligence on who they deal with. Without any procedures governments risk that the necessary equipment is not delivered or is delayed, public funds that could save lives are lost and trust in governments plummets in such a crucial time," said Alma Sedlar, Chair of Transparency International Slovenia.

Acron’s selection caused a stir in Slovenia over the weekend when it was revealed that the mother of Defense Minister Matej Tonin works there. Oštro was unable to confirm what position his mother, Joži Tonin, holds at the company.

On Sunday, Matej Tonin denied any involvement in the tender and invited Slovenia’s anti-corruption body to investigate the case. He pointed out the contract had been signed by the Agency for Commodity Reserves, which falls under the purview of the Ministry of Economic Development, not the Ministry of Defence.

The Agency said Acron had already provided most of the equipment it had promised, well in advance of the deadline. “The Agency signed contracts with many different suppliers, but due to logistical constraints few have been realized so far,” it said in a statement.

Slovenian anti-corruption legislation forbids awarding government contracts to companies in which family members of public officials hold a management position or significant ownership share. This may not apply to Acron’s contracts as it is unclear what position Joži Tonin holds in the company and because her son’s ministry denies being directly involved in the bidding.

As Defense Minister, Matej Tonin held several public briefings on the country’s stocks of medical supplies in the early stages of the epidemic, but the Ministry of Economic Development was later put in charge of procuring the necessary healthcare supplies.

The development ministry told Oštro that Acron’s bid was assessed by the Office for Protection and Rescue, which is tasked with maintaining Slovenia’s defences against disasters. According to the ministry, this is standard procedure for procuring COVID-19 protective equipment.

The Office for Protection and Rescue falls under the purview of the Ministry of Defense.

The defense ministry denied any involvement in the selection of suppliers, however, telling Oštro their role is only to distribute the equipment. A spokesperson maintained that Matej Tonin was unaware Acron had won any contracts until it was revealed on Twitter by the Minister for Economic Development.

Acron did not respond to requests for comment.