VALTER’S DOSSIER: Millionaires in State Customs

VALTER’S DOSSIER: Millionaires in State Customs

Gradiska is the most frequent and desirable destination for customs officers and officials. A good portion of them, besides participating

Zašto je vijest da je načelnik PU Gradiška napustio panel, a borba protiv nasilja nije?
Dunjić ne plaća dugove, ne gubi na tenderima i smjenjuje neposlušne
Otvaraju most kako bi ubrzali gradnju brze ceste kod Gradiške

Gradiska is the most frequent and desirable destination for customs officers and officials. A good portion of them, besides participating in corrupt practices of “coffee-taking” from drivers and freight forwarders, are obliged to transfer the majority of the bribe money earned through well-established channels to their bosses in Banja Luka. How and in what ways bribes are given is discussed in the story and film by the protected witness of Valter.

The border crossing and customs office in Gradiska, according to Valter’s data on traffic frequency, are the busiest in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Through this crossing, a huge number of private vehicles, buses, and trucks pass daily from Bosnia and Herzegovina to the European Union and back from the European Union to Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Over the last couple of decades at this border crossing, according to the months-long investigation by Valter journalist, nouveau riche individuals have emerged. All thanks to the bribes they receive from drivers and importers, who are often forced to engage in corrupt practices to avoid unnecessary complications and problems when crossing the border, and some of them even smuggle counterfeit goods into the country.

HOW BRIBES ARE GIVEN AT THE BORDER

Over the past couple of decades at this border crossing, as well as at other crossings in Bosnia and Herzegovina, almost perfect channels for transferring money from the “zero point” to the bosses in the Indirect Taxation Authority (ITA) in Banja Luka have developed. These channels are almost impossible to document, but the assets of individuals at the top of state customs, claims from sources, public testimonies to Valter, and letters warning ITA directors of illegal activities at the border leave enough room for justified suspicion. Individuals from the management (former and current) structures of the ITA, it is more than obvious, possess assets that are nowhere near proportionate to their salaries as state officials.

The key question is how this property was acquired?

Photo: Customs terminal Gradiska

Valter, in an exclusive interview with one of the truck drivers in Bosnia and Herzegovina, whose identity we want to protect for understandable reasons, provides details on how truck drivers leave money at the border. Although no one directly asks for this money, it is clear that it is implied as an unwritten rule to smoothly cross the border, which our protected witness especially emphasizes.

Photo: Border Crossing Gradiska

“You know, in some things, for people who often cross the border, mostly with freight vehicles and transporting goods, it has become commonplace. It has become something normal, and people prepare for it. We have two kinds, so to speak, of bribery, giving money, ‘treating to coffee’… One way is to transport something that is not regular. I don’t mean something that is forbidden, but that you are not regular, that you have some mistake on paper, that you have some goods subject to customs and you want to pass it, and there are payments to expedite the paperwork. So, when you submit the papers for customs clearance, it’s given to the customs officer. This is usually done through intermediaries. It’s given to the customs officer to expedite the paperwork so that the waiting time wouldn’t be four, or five hours”, testifies our interviewee, who also speaks about this in our short film.

Photo: Protected Witness Valter

The amounts given to customs officers when crossing the border vary and depend on the case.

“Here we are talking about our border crossings towards the EU, where the amounts are 50 KM to expedite the paperwork. The most money is spent on importing vehicles where there is additional equipment on the vehicles that goes with the vehicle in EU countries, but our law hasn’t defined it. For example, a spare tire. A tire as a tire is not allowed to be imported, but a complete wheel is allowed. However, the law hasn’t regulated this well, and people who import these vehicles with spare tires usually give ‘coffee money’ to pass it”, testifies a truck driver from Bosnia and Herzegovina.

According to the claims of several different sources of Valter, the money collected at border crossings in this way is taken to the bosses at the headquarters of the ITA in Banja Luka. This bribe money is handed over where the “messengers” and bosses usually meet, usually at lunch.

The management of the ITA of Bosnia and Herzegovina has also been informed about this crime. In a letter from employees to the former director of the ITA, Mira Džakula, dated March 2021, which Valter had access to, it is described in detail how individuals, especially members of the Smuggling Suppression Group, which was led by Jelena Majstorović until its dissolution and suspension, illegally acquire huge amounts of money.

THEY TOOK 500 KM PER CONTAINER OF GOODS

According to these allegations, officers in the Smuggling Suppression Group have been systematically engaged in extortion and racketeering for years, mainly targeting importers of Chinese goods cleared at the Gradiska CI. They would take money from freight forwarders per container to avoid conducting inspections and confiscating undeclared goods after customs clearance and release into free circulation. It is stated that members of the Group would take 500 KM per cleared container, under the pretext of forwarding the money to bosses in Banja Luka. Employees of the ITA asked Džakula to react and protect both their own and the authority’s reputation to prevent the information from reaching SIPA and the Prosecutor’s Office.

However, Džakula never intended to react because the head of the Group, Jelena Majstorović, had long been his most loyal and close associate.

Several of our sources mention several key names as the bosses who enriched themselves thanks to the “money channels from the borders to the Authority.” The most important among them are Jelena Majstorović and Goran Marinković, the head of the Customs Affairs Department in the ITA, who is also the godfather of the new director Zoran Tegeltija, with Tegeltija’s blessing, serving as his chief operative and creating a sort of personnel chaos in state customs. Both Majstorović and Marinković are from Prnjavor and have known each other for a long time.

Photo: Goran Marinković

Majstorović was arrested in an operation by SIPA in December 2022. She has been working in the ITA since March 2013, and with Džakula’s support, she promptly progressed in her career and eventually became the head of the Smuggling Suppression Group until her arrest. She joined the ITA with a high school diploma, and she “completed” her private faculty along the way.

Our sources, including the president of the Independent Union of State Officials and Employees of the ITA, Predrag Jelača (who also testifies in Valter’s film), partially confirmed by the financial investigation, confirm that Jelena Majstorović purchased seven properties during her tenure at the ITA, including two apartments in Banja Luka.

Jelena Majstorović (Photo: CIN)

One of them was furnished with custom-made furniture by a “master” from Cazin.

Photo: Stylish furniture in one of Jelena Majstorović’s apartments

She also managed to buy two garages in Banja Luka, an apartment in Prnjavor, and two apartments in Jahorina in Hotel Vučko (evidence of which exists in the Prosecutor’s Office of BiH as part of the investigation against her). One apartment was transferred to her daughter Jana, whom she also employed in the ITA, specifically at the Gradiska Border Crossing.

THE LUXURIOUS LIFE OF CHIEF JELENA

The lavish lifestyle of the former head of the Smuggling Suppression Group is evidenced by private photos from exotic destinations posted on social media. Some of these trips feature Bogdan Knežević, a former waiter from the Bolton tavern in Donja Dragotinja, whom she also employed in the ITA (Knežević, although almost entirely uneducated, later emerges as one of the significant figures for Džakula and Jelena Majstorović). Sources cite Knežević’s own testimony that he sold several cows to fund their trip to Egypt, and after Majstorović’s arrest, he even took out a loan to contribute to her defence fund.

Photo: Jet-set life of Jelena Majstorović, a little in Dubai, then with Bogdan Knežević in Egypt

Jelena Majstorović used her leadership of the smuggling suppression group, among other things, to acquire real estate and travel to destinations like Dubai, Egypt, Turkey, and other exotic locations. Interestingly, almost a year and a half after being arrested by SIPA together with her associates and labelled “the organizer of a criminal group”, the Prosecutor’s Office of BiH has not yet filed charges.

“In the mentioned case, we can respond that the investigation is ongoing, in its final stages, with the imminent issuance of a prosecutorial decision”, the Prosecutor’s Office of BiH responded to Valter.

According to statements from several witnesses, Jelena Majstorović instructed Bogdan Knežević to fraudulently change his CIPS address before starting work, which he did, registering fictitiously in Bosanska Kostajnica at the address of his friend’s, all to receive around 300 KM monthly for transportation. The abuses were discovered during the general elections in 2022 (allegedly uncovered by his fellow villagers from Donja Dragotinja, where he lives with his mother and son). According to the same allegations, based on this fraud, Knežević unlawfully acquired about 10,000 KM, as stated in the SIPA report submitted to the Prosecutor’s Office of BiH as part of the investigation into his employment status; however, this case has been sitting in Prosecutor Elvira Stanojlović’s drawer for over half a year.

Photo: Facsimile of the case number in the Prosecutor’s Office of BiH

From the ITA, as always, when asked about scandals and crime, no response was received to any questions regarding Majstorović’s case, nor about Goran Marinković or their acquired property. We also inquired whether she was disciplined after her arrest, whether she is still employed at the ITA, whether, as our sources claim, she still frequents the ITA premises in Banja Luka, even meeting with Director Tegeltija, and whether she influences the Group’s work. We received no answers to these or numerous other questions about Jelena Majstorović and Goran Marinković.

“Our colleague is the most drastic example of a person employed in the ITA without any professional qualifications to perform those duties. Her ultimate position was to handle the protocol to receive submissions and documents brought by clients. She came with a high school diploma, hired by Director Miro Džakula on a fixed-term contract on March 4, 2013. Upon her arrival, she was immediately assigned to the Department for Regulatory Enforcement. She drove out all qualified and trained staff who were very experienced operatives. She particularly targeted the Smuggling Suppression Group. As a person with a high school education, she could not possibly perform those tasks, nor was she an authorized person. After a certain period, after driving out all capable individuals who could perform those tasks and relocating them to other positions, she took over the entire smuggling suppression group. She quickly became the leader of the smuggling suppression team”, said Predrag Jelača, president of the Independent Union of ITA Officials, to Valter.

Jelača: Individuals were keen to take over the leadership of certain important sectors and departments because that way they gained control over all the flows of smuggled goods entering Bosnia and Herzegovina.

This union was the only one willing to speak to Valter’s journalists. Jelača also says that due to his warnings about crime and corruption in the ITA of BiH, he faces problems and pressure and has been demoted to the lowest possible position in the Authority, and that employees are threatened and coerced to prevent them from becoming members of the union he leads.

Infographic

The whole story takes a twist with the role of Goran Marinković himself, Tegeltija’s godfather, who was one of the arrested in the major Pandora affair in 2014. Marinković, as the head of the Customs Office in Banja Luka, was one of the key suspects for facilitating the import of smuggled goods into BiH when, besides him, several others were arrested, including the then director of the ITA, Kemal Čaušević. It is known that only Čaušević was sentenced to nine years in prison in 2021, and his property worth 1.7 million KM was confiscated.

Photo: Arrest of Čaušević in the “Pandora” operation; dozens of people were charged with a crime worth two billion KM, but in the end only Kemal Čaušević was convicted

Last summer, Tegeltija’s best man appointed Marinković as the head of the Customs Affairs Department in the ITA, and since his arrival, as Valter has already reported, a larger number of officials have been transferred to other positions to be replaced by individuals loyal to him and Tegeltija. Our sources claim that after being appointed to the new position, Marinković, on behalf of the director, invites customs and other officials for discussions, offers positions, and explains that “he will be the one collecting money for the director and Milorad Dodik, appointing and dismissing officials.”

The ITA of BiH did not respond to questions regarding these allegations.

“In recent months, there has been an unnatural and illogical number of internal transfers, all on a temporary basis. It involves hundreds of transfers, yet there are not so many vacant positions. An employee is transferred when a position becomes vacant due to sick leave or maternity leave, necessary for the ongoing processes that must take place daily”, says Jelača, warning that this is how teams loyal to the boss are created.

GORAN MARINKOVIĆ’S MULTI-MILLION DOLLAR ASSETS

Marinković himself was a key figure in facilitating the import of counterfeit goods without adequate control in the Pandora affair. According to investigators’ documents, which Valter journalists had access to, he facilitated the import of 1,400 shipments of goods originating from China and Turkey to privileged importers and received financial compensation for it, part of which was testified to by Kemal Čaušević during the trial.

These criminal activities were carried out according to a previously agreed-upon arrangement for customs to clear the goods of selected importers from China and Turkey under the most favourable conditions and the lowest possible purchase prices for customs and tax bases upon importation – without unloading and detailed inspections of container and truck shipments, with minimal retention of goods, minimal collection of taxes into the budget, and in return, as a counter-service, the importer would have to bring 5,000 KM in cash in an envelope for each shipment.

If any customs official objected to this way of “doing business”, they would quickly be transferred to another position.

 

Photo: Facsimile of a document from the investigation of the Prosecutor’s Office of BiH; among the main suspects is Marinković

However, Goran Marinković did not find himself in the dock alongside Director Čaušević but was instead a witness for the Prosecution in the case against Čaušević.

The assets Marinković has acquired to date are worth millions, as confirmed by the real estate he owns, but it is difficult for investigative journalists without the intervention of the rule of law to prove their origin. What is unquestionable, however, is that Goran Marinković could not have acquired this property with the salary of a state official employed in the ITA. Today, as revealed by Valter’s months-long investigation, among other things, he owns a new 300-square-meter house in the Budžak neighbourhood of Banja Luka, confirmed by the cadastral extract. Marinković’s house is worth about a million marks.

Photo: House of Goran Marinković and cadastral extract

In the same neighbourhood, a few hundred meters from the first house, he bought another house, which he converted into Caffe-bar Film, covering an area of 150 square meters and estimated to be worth around 800,000 KM, whose cadastral extract we also publish. According to unconfirmed information, Marinković is also the owner of several thousand square meters of attractive land next to the main road in Tunjice, Banja Luka, as well as an apartment in Vienna.

Photo: Goran Marinković’s café and cadastral extract

As we mentioned, the UIO has avoided answering our questions, which has caused a sort of alarm within their headquarters.

Apart from being from the same city, Marinković and Jelena Majstorović have known each other for a long time. He worked as a textile worker in a company that produced textile products in Prnjavor, owned by Momir Majstorović, the father of Jelena Majstorović’s former husband. He was the subject of an investigation and accused of smuggling excise goods when he moved from his father-in-law’s company in 1994 to work in the Republic Customs Administration of RS, in the customs office in Prnjavor.

In January 2004, Marinković submitted a request to have his diploma recognized and to be granted the title of a graduate economist, sports and recreation manager, from the Faculty of Service Business in Novi Sad. The then head of the Banja Luka customs office, Bogdan Novaković, granted his request on the same day and issued a decision recognizing Marinković’s diploma, after which he became a customs inspector-collaborator. Interestingly, Novaković also holds the same diploma from the same faculty.

With the establishment of the UIO, Marinković was appointed as the head of the Customs Office in Banja Luka, where, despite his arrest in Pandora, he remained until the end of July 2023.

Photo: Facsimile of one of Goran Marinković’s diplomas

To this day, investigators from SIPA, with whom we spoke, still do not understand how Marinković managed to avoid sharing the defendant’s bench with Čaušević after the arrests in Pandora, as he was marked as the main person in the organization enabling the entry of a huge number of shipments of counterfeit goods into BiH. Sources indicate that he had protection from the then Chairman of the Council of Ministers, Nikola Špirić.

Valter sent questions regarding these allegations to the SNSD with a note that they concern Nikola Špirić, but no response was received.

The State Investigation and Protection Agency of Bosnia and Herzegovina (SIPA) did not respond to the question of whether they continued to investigate Goran Marinković, a UIO employee, after the arrests in the Pandora operation, despite Valter’s discovery that he owns multimillion-dollar property. They also did not answer whether SIPA is aware of how individuals in UIO, including Jelena Majstorović and Marinković himself, acquired the property they own, and whether the origin of that property will be investigated.

“We inform you that the State Investigation and Protection Agency acted upon requests from the Prosecutor’s Office of Bosnia and Herzegovina. For more information, contact the aforementioned Prosecutor’s Office”, was SIPA’s brief response to us.

The Prosecutor’s Office of Bosnia and Herzegovina, on the other hand, provided the expected response to the question of why Marinković was excluded from the indictment after the arrests in the Pandora operation.

“Orders were issued for non-enforcement or suspension of the investigation against other reported persons because there was not enough evidence to file charges.”

While the Prosecutor’s Office of BiH suspends one investigation after another, a legacy of former director Miro Džakula and his “deep” connections in the Prosecutor’s Office and SIPA, individuals in UIO, who have established an inverted value system over the past twenty years in state customs, continue to rule this “golden hen”, which are undoubtedly state customs. Interestingly, during the two-and-a-half mandates of Miro Džakula, one team of people made all the decisions, while with the arrival of Zoran Tegeltija, another team took over “organizing affairs” and staffing, including individuals like Jelena Majstorović who joined the new director.

The first union leader of the Independent Union of Employees in UIO, whom only the management does not recognize as a partner, explains why it was important for individuals to take over the leadership of certain important sectors and departments.

“They took over all the flows of smuggled goods entering BiH in this way. Instead of preventing these goods from entering BiH without control, they enabled these goods to arrive and flood our market. That’s why all the halls of the textile and footwear industry in BiH are closed. That’s why all these people lost their jobs”, emphasizes Jelača.

FAMILY EMPLOYMENTS

Jelena Majstorović’s and Goran Marinković’s children, Jana Majstorović and Srđan Marinković, are also employed in UIO BiH. Jana got a job in state customs, at the Gradiška customs office, after coming of age, while Srđan Marinković was employed in the IT sector and later transferred to the position of customs inspector at the Gradiška customs office, without the necessary experience. Recently, he boasted on social media about his new limousine, which, presumably, he also bought with his salary.

Photo: Srđan Marinković

Photo: Jana Majstorović in her apartment, and Jan Majstorović’s Mercedes

Marinković appointed his friend Predrag Pavlović as the head of the customs office in Banja Luka, and in October 2023, his relative Jelena Marinković, a fitness instructor with a degree from a private college, was hired on a fixed-term contract without competition in the headquarters of the Indirect Taxation Authority in the Sector for Business Services – Department for Financial Management.

Photo: Jelena Marinković

 In November 2023, Marinković appointed his godmother Darija Sejmanović as the head of the Large Taxpayer Control Group in the Regional Center Banja Luka.

Our protected witness admits that he has previously given thousands of marks to customs officers either in their hands or in their passports when crossing the border. He doesn’t know how much other drivers have given, but he says that in conversations among drivers before crossing the border, they know how much to give to each shift, and that all drivers give roughly the same amount of money per border crossing. Our witness says that this simply has to be done because such a corrupt system has been established, and it is taken for granted.

“You know, it has become routine, and we as a people are ready for it. Just as we are ready to give, they are ready to take. You are aware that if something is not right, you are aware and you look for ways to give. There are people who are willing to help, and where there is no need to discuss money”, says Valter’s protected witness.

Photo: Border Crossing and Customs Office Bosanska Gradiška

Our interlocutor also emphasizes that he has not encountered a customs officer who refused the offered money. He says he doesn’t know how customs officers distribute the money or whether and through which channels they send it further, nor does he care.

“I haven’t come across that kind, I haven’t come across that happening. There are also tips, when there are some stricter controls, they probably have tips that something is going on, so they wait for the checks to pass. There are a lot of events, most often in transporting goods on buses. People are ready to give tips there. The driver is informed that there is a check at that border crossing so he shouldn’t go through that crossing, or to leave the goods and transport them next time”, our witness reveals various tactics during the crossing of the state border.

Thus, the circle closes, and we return to the border crossing and the Customs Office Bosanska Gradiška, the most frequented in BiH and the most desirable destination for customs officers and officials. Those selected (a good portion of them), besides participating in corrupt practices of “coffee-taking” from drivers and freight forwarders themselves, are obliged to transfer the larger part of the bribe money acquired through well-established channels to their bosses in Banja Luka. How and in what ways bribes are given is confirmed by our Valter witness, who speaks about this in our upcoming film.

(Valter portal)