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Belgian star health minister embroiled in corporate spy scandal

Belgian star health minister embroiled in corporate spy scandal

by host

BRUSSELS — The Belgian health official thought she was having a job interview. But when she entered the chic restaurant in downtown Amsterdam, she was plunged into a bizarre case of espionage masterminded to find alleged corruption inside her own government. 

The public servant, who for legal reasons cannot be named, was having lunch with an undercover agent posing as a pharmaceutical executive. He worked with a private spy-for-hire group known for defending the jailed sex offender Harvey Weinstein — and he was secretly filming her while they ate. 

Over French cuisine at canal-side Brasserie Ambassade, the health official revealed details of Covid-era contracts worth €48 million secured by the Belgian government with medical supplies firms, in an affair that now embroils one of the country’s top politicians — and potential European Commissioner candidate — Frank Vandenbroucke.  

At issue is whether the contracts were awarded fairly, or if favoritism and anti-competitive behavior were at play in Vandenbroucke’s department.

The firm, Black Cube, hired by a small medical logistics company, spent months setting up fake LinkedIn profiles, Zoom conferences and meetings for “Edgewise Capital,” a pharmaceutical group that never existed. The aim was to entice the health official into a sham interview in the hope of gathering evidence that the public tenders had been rigged. 

The medical firm which hired the undercover agent, Medista, alleges contracts were awarded unfairly to Movianto, a competitor.

In a video of that meeting shared with Belgian media Het Laatste Nieuws in December, the civil servant, who works for Vandenbroucke — Belgium’s powerful deputy prime minister and health minister — can be seen animatedly discussing a government deal to manage the country’s strategic medicine stocks and diagnostics results. 

“I got in touch with [a Movianto manager] once more to talk in more depth about the second tender,” the official is seen saying in the video, which shows a chandelier in the background. “I found a good lawyer, a good legal team for him. A good one to help him, because I’m sure he’s going to make mistakes and I won’t be able to correct it.” 

After the meeting was exposed, the Belgian government launched an internal audit over allegations they had rigged a public tender, just as politicians in Belgium and the European Parliament prepare for elections, and public scrutiny of elected officials is at its highest.

Bad timing 

At the center of the story is an unlikely protagonist: the small Belgian medical logistics firm, Medista. When the company lost a contract to distribute vaccines to another group, it pushed the nuclear button, hiring the ex-Mossad spy firm.

To Sarah Taybi, the company’s CEO, it was a “question of principles,” she said in an interview with POLITICO. 

Medista claims it has been the victim of a stitch up, and that the video shows the official bragging about how she helped the rival business Movianto.  For Medista, the video is evidence of unusual coziness between a public official and a private company that had to compete for government contracts. 

The medical firm which hired the undercover agent, Medista, alleges contracts were awarded unfairly to Movianto, a competitor | Pool photo by Olivier Matthys via AFP/Getty Images

Since the start of the pandemic, Taybi’s company had won a string of contracts to transport medical supplies around the country. Medista won more than €40 million over the course of two ​​years, and it was counting on even more after winning another contract related to vaccine distribution until 2025. 

But in spring of 2022, the Belgian government informed Medista the contract would end sooner than expected for budgetary reasons, and that a new public tender would be issued. Medista competed, and lost to Movianto

“We built a warehouse, we invested in the future of this contract and they took it away from us,” said Taybi, Medista’s chief executive.  

She hired Black Cube to collect evidence that could prove that Medista had been unfairly excluded from the tender. 

Alongside the clandestine footage of the Belgian official, Black Cube has also obtained videos with the Movianto manager claiming he won a public contract thanks to “personal relations.” 

The Belgian government responded to the claims saying that the videos are edited, and that their lack of context makes it difficult to assess if there has been a clear breach of public tenders procedure. But the excerpts are serious enough for the health ministry to launch an internal probe of the tender in question. 

Even if its conclusions, which are expected this month, were to clear the Belgian administration, the surreal episode also serves as a cautionary tale for EU officials. As Covid contract cases multiply in Europe, they stir up suspicion of public administrations’ weaknesses and erode trust in their institutions. 

For Belgian deputy PM Vandenbroucke, the saga delivers unwanted media attention, especially ahead of the elections. The minister is among the potential candidates being talked about as a contender to become the European Union’s next health boss, though his team denies that he holds those ambitions. 

For Medista boss Taybi, it’s become something of a personal crusade.

“I think that the truth must come out,” said the CEO. “When I saw the videos, I felt it was deplorable.”

Logistics litigation 

Medista, which has its headquarters strategically placed near Brussels’ Zaventem airport, was first hired by the government in March 2020. 

Back then, the company was a relatively small player in medical logistics. But under Taybi, the firm had built up an end-to-end traceable delivery system, which was in high demand in the pandemic.

“We were 125 at the peak of the pandemic,” said Taybi, talking about the number of employees she had hired. “We are now 25,” she said, sitting at her office desk in the vast, and now largely empty, facility on the outskirts of the city.

Things turned sour for the company in mid-2021 after the health ministry took over management of the contract from Belgium’s medicines regulator, Taybi claimed. First, one vaccine distribution contract worth around €5 million was stopped early. Then, the Belgian administration issued the contract worth €48 million for vaccine distribution and other pandemic work to Medista’s competitor Movianto.

Taybi sued at Belgium’s top court, the Council of State, to annul the decision to award the contract to Movianto on grounds including pricing and contact with the ministry. But the Court said none of the grounds was proven to be serious at this stage of the procedure, adding: “The claim for suspension in the event of extreme urgency must therefore be rejected.”

Taybi only had 60 days to gather the evidence for an appeal to show that the tender had been rigged against Medista, not long enough to produce the evidence and appeal the decision. 

She only had two options, Taybi’s lawyers told her at the time: go through the criminal courts, a lengthy process that might take more than a decade, time she didn’t have; or take the more unorthodox route — and hire Black Cube.  

Taybi said she didn’t have anything personal against Vandenbroucke (her politician partner Lionel Bajart hails from the liberal Open VLD party which is in a coalition with Vandenbroucke’s socialist Vooruit party). But the minister had publicly stated that Medista was dropped because it was too expensive. “I am also defending my reputation,” she said.

Alongside the clandestine footage of the Belgian official, Black Cube has also obtained videos with the Movianto manager claiming he won a public contract thanks to “personal relations” | Robin Van Lonkhuijsen/ANP/AFP via Getty Images

Alongside hidden camera videos recorded by spies, there’s the more prosaic reality of disputed invoices. Medista claims it is owed €5 million which it still hasn’t been paid from previous contracts. 

According to a Belgian health ministry spokesperson, “there are still invoices from Medista that are disputed for several reasons, and are the subject of several court proceedings.” 

Both the public servant, as well as Movianto, have reportedly filed complaints following the publication of Black Cube’s videos. 

“Movianto acted in line with all applicable legal provisions,” the company said in a written statement, adding that contact between the public authorities and the tender applicants is not necessarily prohibited. “We are confident that we complied with all the conditions of the tender procedure,” the statement said.

In response to a request for comment, Black Cube said it was “proud” of what it had uncovered for Medista, adding: “Black Cube operates strictly according to legal advice from top-tier law firms in each jurisdiction where operations are conducted,” it added. 

The Brussels public prosecutor’s office, responsible for investigating and charging crimes in the Brussels region, confirmed to POLITICO that an investigation was under way related to these events, but refused to share any further details, saying only: “We are aware of a complaint. It is being investigated, but we are unable to provide any further information at this time,” adding that the investigation was “in full swing.”

For Taybi, everything she has invested in is in jeopardy, she said. But she has no regrets hiring the spy agency.  

“I can’t forget what we’ve done and how we’ve been treated,” she said, claiming that it was her company who paid in advance for Belgium’s vaccines. “We’re still owed €5 million.” 

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