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Frontex rattled by probe into contract with travel agency accused of fraud

by editor

Europe’s border agency, Frontex, awarded a contract to a Polish travel agency despite knowing it was under investigation by the EU’s anti-fraud agency — until its Executive Director Hans Leijtens broke off the deal, according to documents seen by POLITICO and Germany’s Welt newspaper.

Frontex’s collaboration with the Polish travel agency started in 2019 with a deal to provide travel booking services for the Warsaw-based EU institution, which guards the European Union’s external borders and employs nearly 3,000 people.

That original collaboration was suspended when an economic crimes investigator working for Frontex alerted the EU institution to potential fraud by the travel agency. 

The claims were passed on to EU anti-fraud investigator OLAF, which started its own probe. (POLITICO and Welt, both owned by Axel Springer, aren’t naming the travel agency for legal reasons.)

Despite the warning signs, however, Frontex put out a new request for tenders in December 2022 and a new contract was awarded to the same Polish travel agency in 2023 to help manage the institution’s €526 million travel budget.

An internal Frontex document reviewed by Welt and POLITICO shows that the contract was awarded because other providers that participated in the bid for tenders couldn’t offer comparable services. But the document makes no mention of the investigations. 

It was only after Frontex’s legal department carried out its own investigation into the travel agency, recommending the contract’s withdrawal in November 2023, that Executive Director Leijtens signed a so-called “non-approval notice,” which cancelled the contract as well as the entire bidding process.

“The financial regulation [of the EU] obliges us to do this (cancel the contract) when the irregularities are blatant,” one of the internal documents reads. 

It remains unclear who at Frontex took the decision to award the contract in spite of the ongoing investigations and claims of fraudulent activity. 

Leijtens became Frontex’s executive director in March 2023, succeeding Fabrice Leggeri, who resigned from the agency in April 2022.

Frontex did not reply to repeated requests for comment from POLITICO and Welt. The Polish travel agency declined to comment for this article.

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