What is the NCR&D scandal about? Huge grants for suspicious firms
The National Centre for Research and Development is distributing grants which are to contribute to the ‘Poland’s civilizational development’. The prosecutor’s office and the Anti-Corruption Bureau are currently investigating two grants from last year’s NCR&D tender amounting to a total of almost PLN 178 million.
‘The Central Anti-Corruption Bureau (CAB) started an investigation at the National Centre for Research and Development (NCR&D) on 22 February 2023. The Centre’s management guaranteed full cooperation with the CAB. The NCR&D is not currently providing any more information in the interests of the investigation,’ reads a laconic communication posted on the NCR&D’s website.
The NCR&D is a government executive agency under the Ministry of Development Funds and Regional Policy. It is supposed to be a ‘key centre for supporting and creating innovative technological and social solutions’. The NCR&D’s main task is to distribute public money for projects which are to contribute to the ‘civilizational development of the country’. This applies to huge amounts of money:
in 2021, the Centre distributed more than PLN 5.8 billion, of which the vast majority were funds transferred to Poland from the European Union’s budget.
One of the largest tenders for EU co-financing managed by the NCR&D is ‘Fast Track – Digital Innovations’. Grants totalling over PLN 801 million were awarded from it in 2022. And it is precisely this tender – following information disclosed by the media – that has become the focus of interest of the CAB and the prosecution service, as well as the Supreme Audit Office.
We are summarizing what is known so far about the suspicious multi-million NCR&D grants.
55 million for a 26-year-old
It all started with almost 55 million zlotys to be received by Postquant in the ‘Fast Track’ programme (the contract has not yet been signed) for a project entitled ‘IOT solution for tracking goods in the supply chain and monitoring their transport parameters’.
Radio Zet journalists Mariusz Gierszewski and Radosław Gruca revealed that Postquant sp. z o.o. had been registered in Gdańsk ten days before the deadline for submitting bids in the tender. It was established by Kacper Wiśniewski, then aged 26. The newly established company’s share capital was PLN 5,000.
Wiśniewski’s application received the lowest score qualifying the project for co-financing – 10 out of 16 points – but, even so, the grant awarded to him was one of the highest.
It was possible to receive an average of PLN 5.5 million in last year’s ‘Fast Track’.
The rules of the tender were modified in the meantime: the deadline for the submission of tenders was extended from 4 pm to 11.59 pm on 4 November 2022, and then the pool of funds was increased even further (the initial tender was to be for PLN 660 million). The NCR&D admitted that Postquant sp. z o.o.’s application was submitted within the extended deadline. But it refused to give the press access to the content of the application.
Civic Coalition MPs Dariusz Joński and Michał Szczerba, who conducted an audit at the NCR&D found out the details. They revealed that Kacper Wiśniewski worked and works as a bartender. And that he submitted his application several dozen minutes before the tender closed: at 11.22 pm. According to Joński and Szczerba, the recently established Postquant has no chance of raising the PLN 17 million contribution needed for implementing the project for which the application was filed. They also questioned the ‘innovativeness’ of Wiśniewski’s idea.
‘He submitted an application for monitoring the continuity of the supply chain through location sensors. Every logistics company has such a system. There are plenty of companies that sell such programs, which are extended and much more modern. This is no innovation, whereas this money was supposed to be used for innovations,’ emphasized Joński.
Accidental coincidence of addresses
Nobody has managed to contact Kacper Wiśniewski so far. The Tri-City ‘Gazeta Wyborcza’ revealed that the man gave the town of Kosów Lacki in the Sokołowski County (Mazowieckie Voivodship) as his place of residence in the documents at the registry court. The journalist also found information about the companies that Wiśniewski had already established at the beginning of 2022. They are:
- Xeres Alternatywna Spółka Inwestycyjna with capital of PLN 100,000 (registered by the PFSA on the list of entities entitled to conduct investment activities)
- and D4B, where Wiśniewski’s partner is Adam Mielnicki, a KORWiN party activist in the past, among others, who is currently a member of the audit committee of the Radon Association, which is promoting ‘easier access to firearms for citizens’.
MPs from Adam Bielan’s Republican Party filed a bill with the Sejm in April 2022 on the easing of restrictions on access to firearms in Poland. However, nothing is known about any possible cooperation between the Republicans and the Radon Association. When questioned by the journalists from ‘Wyborcza’, Adam Mielnicki said that his activities in the association and his business acquaintanceship with Kacper Wiśniewski are separate topics.
But the story about the NCR&D and Wiśniewski’s company points more to the Republican Party. ‘Wirtualna Polska’ wrote that Postquant’s headquarters – a virtual office in an office building on ul. Heweliusza in Gdańsk – has the same address as the party’s former headquarters. A press officer of the Republicans said this was a coincidence.
The NCR&D has officially been subordinated to Deputy Minister Jacek Żalek precisely from the Republican Party (formerly in Jarosław Gowin’s Porozumienie [Agreement party]) since August 2022. According to ‘Newsweek’, Paweł Kuch, until recently acting director of the NCR&D, is also Adam Bielan’s man. However, Bielan’s former assistant, Ignacy Bobruk, became Kuch’s adviser, for a not inconsiderable salary: PLN 24,000 per month.
123 million for brother-in-law’s colleague
The largest grant of almost 123 million from the ‘Fast Track’ tender is to be awarded to Chime Networks from Białystok, a subsidiary of TB Telecom sp. z o.o., established in the summer of 2020. Its grant application was for the development of ‘cyber-security solutions for undersea fibre optic infrastructure based on innovative multi-core fibre technology and ultra-sensitive threat detection and identification systems’.
As Radio Zet journalists revealed, Piotr Maziewski is the largest shareholder in Chime Networks and a member of the management board of TB Telecom. According to the National Court Register, he is also a member of the audit committee of the Bialystok-based Catholic Academic Youth Association.
The vice-president of this association is the brother of Deputy Minister Żalek’s wife. Whereas its president is Dr Hab. Karol Kramkowski, a member of the NCR&D council.
The Council is an advisory body; it speaks up, among other things, on matters regarding the terms and conditions of tenders and has a decisive say in the establishment of the membership of the NCR&D’s teams of experts and the management of the Centre’s assets. Kramkowski has also been a member of the NCR&D appeal committee since January 2023, and has also been made the chairman of the committee which is to handle the recruitment for the post of director of the NCR&D.
In response to the questions from the journalists, Jacek Żalek stated that he sees no conflict of interest in this. He pointed out that the Catholic Academic Youth Association (SKMA) has not been active for years and he does not know what his wife’s brother does. SKMA was established in 2006, and there have been no new entries on it in the National Court Register since then.
However, ‘Gazeta Wyborcza’ revealed Piotr Maziewski’s (from Chime Networks) and Karol Kramkowski’s (from the NCR&D council) connections with a Białystok businessman and social activist, Paweł B., who is suspected of embezzling millions from EU grants, and is an acquaintance of Jacek Żalek.
MPs Joński and Szczerba emphasize that Chime Networks is a company on the verge of bankruptcy. ‘The maximum loan it can obtain on the market is PLN 750. The state is transferring 123 million to a company that is only able to obtain such a loan’ commented Szczerba.
Audit, audit, audit
As a consequence of the information revealed, Deputy Minister Jacek Żalek was deprived of the authority to supervise the NCR&D, and Hanna Strykowska, who is associated with him, lost her position, having just been made deputy director of the Centre in November 2022.
As ‘Rzeczpospolita’ wrote, Paweł Kuch also ceased to be acting director in the middle of February. The media connected his departure with the ‘Fast Track’ tender scandal, which Kuch himself clearly denied. He explained that his period of appointment had simply ended. Kuch, who had been appointed acting director six months earlier, had reported the possible commitment of a crime in the distribution of NCR&D grants.
An investigation is in progress as of 20 February into two grants, which the prosecution service has entrusted to the Central Anti-Corruption Bureau.
According to ‘Rzeczpospolita’s’ findings, officers have already questioned Deputy Minister Żalek and have searched the NCR&D office. Proceedings were initiated under Article 231 para. 2 of the Penal Code, i.e. abuse of power for the purpose of achieving financial or personal gain. This is punishable by imprisonment for between one and ten years.
On 9 February 2023, Jacek Orzeł, who had been director of the Office of Security Policy at the Ministry of Development Funds and Regional Policy for several years and had previously worked at the Ministry of Development and the Central Statistical Office, among others, was made acting director of the NCR&D. Minister Puda instructed the new director to perform an internal audit of the institution encompassing the ‘Fast Track’ tender, but not only.
The President of the Supreme Audit Office, Marian Banaś has announced an audit of the tender. Dariusz Joński and Michał Szczerba also intend to report the matter to the European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF), which investigates cases of fraud in the spending of EU funds. According to MPs, there may be more cases of suspicious grants. They are demanding the invalidation of the whole of the tender.
Translated by Roman Wojtasz
The article was published in Polish in OKO.press February 28, 2023.