Several contracts financed wth European funds for the digitisation of Tulcea’s town halls were granted to the man who was the de facto coordinator for the consultancy services and represented the companies that drew up the tender documents, i.e. the exact steps that established the rules for awarding the contracts, as it was explained for Info Sud-Est by a group of mayors who worked with Gabriel Al-Baba, a 28-year-old from Timișoara.
Active in the PSD (Social Democrat Party) since he was a student, appointed referent in the Dacian Cioloș Government at the age of 20 and a former assistant in the League of Romanian Students Abroad, founded by the current Minister of Digitisation Sebastian Burduja, Al-Baba was the intermediary in relations with the town halls for two companies in which he did not have any capacity, on paper, the mayors explained.
The firms were owned on paper by two women from the close entourage of Alfred Simonis, Al-Baba’s former political boss and current head of PSD deputies, and had no experience in digitisation. But the two shell firms obtained dozens of digitisation consultancy contracts and delivered copy paste consultancy “strategies”, including the same drafting mistakes.
- Full details here
But the mayors claim they were “consulted” on the ground by Al-Baba, who was first introduced to them at a meeting organised by the PSD president of the Tulcea County Council (CJT) , Horia Teodorescu. That is the point when the anonymous firms were recommended by the head of the CJT, and some of the mayors began to sign consulting contracts with them.
Following these procedures, Al-Baba applied for auctions to implement digitisation, only this time with one of his companies, which did not even have a functional website, had only one employee, but a turnover of 2.5 million lei, of which 2.3 million profit. He started winning projects with European money, of 200,000 euros each, following procedures in which he was often the only participant. Some of the beneficiaries are now complaining about problems with project implementation.
“How could we not know Baba, well, he was the liaison man/ Baba was the head of the societies/ He talked to the mayors/ At the County Council we all knew Baba”
Info Sud-Est spoke at length to several mayors, a deputy mayor and a procurement official who worked with Al-Baba. They all told us that he was the ” connection man ” and the one who was in charge of the consultancy projects and “represented” the two firms that drew up the tender documents.
Al-Baba was neither a shareholder nor an administrator and had no other capacity in the companies. One of the people in the administration we spoke to told us that Al-Baba came went into the field with Darius Huțan, godfather of Alfred Simonis and husband of Camelia Huțan, administrator of Maxor Consulting.
Everyone we spoke to told us the same thing, that they met Al-Baba and the two consulting firms at a meeting called by the president of Tulcea County Council, Horia Teodorescu, who “recommended” them for digitisation. After the meeting, some of the mayors who were present claim to have started working directly with Gabriel Al-Baba, both for consultancy and for digitisation itself.
Some of the statements of the Tulcea mayors:
Deputy Mayor Valentin Sereev, who was in charge of the consultancy and digitisation projects in the Slava Cercheză Town Hall: “Things got stuck, they didn’t inform us about what we had to do”
“(Mr. Al-Baba was in charge of consultancy, have you heard of him?, editor’s note): Exactly. Of course I have heard, I spoke several times with Mr. Baba (…) With Mrs. Corina Stamate I was talking in regards to Athos (…) He (Gabriel Al-Baba, ed. n.) was the representative or head of this company, in the initial phase I spoke with him, then he directed me to Mrs. Corina Stamate (Athos Consulting, ed. n.). (How did you know Baba?, ed.n.) There was a meeting in Tulcea, within the ITI, where all the mayors or deputy mayors were called, we were presented by the president of the county council as those of us who are members of the ITI if we want to be part of this digitisation project (…) (Was Al-Baba presented there?, ed.n.) Exactly, exactly. There we gave an agreement to start the project, the collaboration (of digitisation, ed. n.), we were contacted each one individually and the procedures were started (for the consultancy, ed. n.). By Mr Baba, yes (we were contacted after the meeting). Then things got stuck (on the second auction, for the digitisation project) (…) The auction was opened and we were not told in advance what documents we had to prepare for this stage. The bidders should have told us, according to the contract, what documents to prepare for the SEAP publication stage of the auction. We were not informed (…) They are now asking us to cancel the procedure, but our point of view is that they should have informed us for all the documents. We are afraid there will be a sanction from SEAP, and they are trying to blame the ton hall.”
Another mayor, who made statements on condition of anonymity: “From Athos came a certain Mr Baba”
“We did the consultancy with the Athos firm. At Athos there was a certain Mr Baba who came to us. Yes, Mr. Baba or some such from Athos, that’s what the company told me (…) We had some problems with the papers, because they kept delaying them. I told them that if they didn’t do their job, I wouldn’t deal with them anymore”.
Neculai Neagu, mayor of Grindu: “Mr. Baba went into the territory, he was also at the County Council meeting”.
“(…) Mr. Baba came then, to the County Council, when there were discussions on this issue and I don’t remember if he was also in the area, once or twice, I am more on the road. He was coming to the territory, yes, of course. When it was discussed then, at the County Council, and this topic was presented, it was him, Mr. Baba (…)”.
Another mayor, under anonymity: “Mr. Baba came to the field with Mr. Huțan from Maxor”.
“Mr. Baba used to come in the field (to consult, ed. n.) with another colleague, Darius (Huțan, whom he recognized in the photo and who worked for Maxor Consulting, a firm in which Al-Baba had no position, ed. n.), the two of them worked together in this, they came to see what was needed, to these… Yes, the two of them walked around together”.
Antonel Pocora, Mayor of C.A. Rosetti: “The County Council was presented with the project, that was the first appearance. We worked with Maxor after that”
“We did the consultancy with Maxor as well, it went ok (…) We worked very well online. We have heard of this gentleman (Al-Baba, ed. n.), but not with him, we have someone else, Mr. Huțan, it’s a he, I didn’t know there’s a she as well. I worked with him as an expert co-opted from Maxor (…) I was also at the first appearance, at that meeting (of the county council, ed. n.). The project was presented and they came to present their offer, we did the procurement procedure, they met the conditions”.
Another mayor, under anonymity: “Mr Baba represented the consultancy firms (…) In some places there were problems, some delays, some paperwork”.
“Mr Baba represented the consultancy firms, we were in contact with him, it was as if they were his firms, that’s how we knew it. He would come to us, we would talk, then we would keep in touch with the firms. Yes, I know there were problems in some places, some delays, some problems with paperwork”.
Horia Teodorescu, President of Tulcea County Council: “Do you think I remember everyone?”
“I had no idea, I have never heard of this name in my life. There were a lot of people coming, I don’t know their names. It was a briefing for all the mayors. The rest I had no idea, ask the mayors. At that meeting… do you think I remember them all? I don’t memorize people’s names or faces, 100% I don’t have him in my phone, I don’t keep their contacts, I really have no business there (…) I may have talked to him, but I don’t know, the whole County Council leadership was there, so much fuss is made (…)”, said the President of Tulcea County Council, when asked about the context he met Gabriel Al-Baba in.
Valeria Tudora, an expert in the matter of public procurement, explained for Info Sud-Est that the participation in a procurement procedure of a bidder who participated in the preparation of the tender procedure is not excluded from the outset, but the ethical and objectivity issues that may arise in this case must be treated with great care by the contracting authority.
In this case it seems that the opposite was the case, because in discussions with most of the mayors it was clear that it was self-evident to them that a single entity would ‘handle both the first phase, the consultancy, and the actual implementation’:
“Any decision taken must be very well justified in order not to distort competition on the one hand and to allow equal access to all economic operators on the other. When it comes to direct procurement, the situation is even more sensitive. We do not have any information on the possible measures taken because, in the case of this procedure, the Procedure Report is not drawn up, therefore internal procedures should be drawn up at the level of the Contracting Authorities to stipulate how to deal with these situations that may distort competition”, explained Valeria Tudora.
The network of companies
After the consultancy projects were completed, Al-Baba started implementing the digitisation itself, this time with one of his companies, Aconnect Smart Software, which was set up in 2020.
In 2021 the company had no employees, and in 2022 it had one employee, but a turnover of 2.5 million lei, of which 2.3 million was profit. So far, Al-Baba has secured three digitisation contracts with Aconnect Smart Software worth a total of €600,000 in Tulcea alone, in the town halls of Beștepe, Mihail Kogălniceanu and Grindu, in two of the cases being the only participant in the tender.
These are only the first three digitisation auctions completed out of the 17 that are or will be taking place in Tulcea county, following the conclusion of the consultancy projects carried out by the two anonymous firms.
Gabriel Al-Baba has a network of five companies, all established in Timiș, between 2018-2020, with which he has obtained several contracts with municipalities in Constanta, Tulcea, Arad, Vrancea and mostly in Timiș, worth a total of over 750,000 euros.
According to the Trade Register, Al-Baba’s companies have on average between 0 and 2 employees. Two of them have turnover, in 2022, of 1.5 and 2.5 million lei, of which the profit is 60% and 90% of revenue respectively. A third company is on a loss of about 10,000 euro and two other companies are not registered with activity.
In a 2019 interview for viitorulromaniei.ro when Gabriel Al-Baba’s companies were listed as having no employees, he claimed that he was working with “more than 60 people in the team”: “Life is tough, but when you are responsible for yourself, life is infinitely easier. That is if you discipline yourself and do what you have to do when you have to do it,” the 24-year-old said at the time.
Al-Baba also promoted himself as “CEO” of Digital History Code, a company that was in charge of archiving institutional documents, but with hundreds of thousands of lei in debt and with a non-functional website.
In another public outing, Al-Baba described himself as a “young entrepreneur who wants to digitise the public system in Romania” and predicted in an interview with wall-street.ro that by the end of 2020 he would be “in at least 20 counties” and in 2021 he would announce “the first robot in local government”.
The Aconnect group of companies, with which Al-Baba aims to digitise Romania, does not have a functioning website, and IT experts consulted by ISE explained that the aconnect.ro domain is in fact up for sale.
Gabriel Al-Baba, born in 1995, joined the PSD at a young age, and at 18 was already president of the PSD Students’ League in Timșoara, which had previously been led by Alfred Simonis, who also led the PSD Timiș youth organisation while Al-Baba was active in the party. Simonis is now the head of the Social Democratic deputies.
Al-Baba was actively involved in recreational events, TSD representatives’ trips abroad and in the party’s 2014 campaigns, including in the field, where he handed out election materials.
During the same period, 2014-2015, Al-Baba was dividing his time between PSD events and the events of the League of Romanian Students Abroad (LSRS), founded and de facto led by Sebastian Burduja, the current PNL Minister of Digitisation.
Actively involved in the PSD, Al-Baba was also an LSRS assistant during the same period, when the League’s festive events were guaranteed at a high level, by the presence of the Ministers of Foreign Affairs or Education, or even by the presence of President Klaus Iohannis.
From the League founded by Burduja, Al-Baba went to work as a referent in the cabinet of a secretary of state in the Dacian Cioloș Government.
The leader of the PSD deputies, Alfred Simonis, said that he has been on cold terms for many years with Gabriel Al-Baba, that he is on good terms with his godfather Darius Huțan, but that he has no involvement nor does he know the business conducted by his relatives or friends:
“I have no involvement with what Mr. Huțan or other relatives of mine are doing and what other comments should I make? My relationship with Mr. Baba is a cold one and I am glad that you have solved the mystery there and found out that it is not me behind Mr. Huțan, that I now understand that it is someone else. That’s all I can comment on,” said Alfred Simonis.
The Minister of Research, Innovation and Digitisation, Sebastian Burduja, said that he does not know Gabriel Al-Baba, but he knows a Gabriel Baba (as Al-Baba’s name is often written in the media and on social media, ed. n.) who was not part of the leadership structure of the League of Romanian Students Abroad:
“We, as a ministry, are not in charge of digitising town halls. I’ve never heard of Gabriel Al-Baba in my life, I don’t know who he is. That name doesn’t ring a bell. I know a Gabriel Baba. He was not one of the core volunteers, the most active ones of the League, and I haven’t spoken to him in years, I don’t even know what he does (…). He was not one of the volunteers with leadership positions (…). I am responsible for the projects that the Ministry of Research, Innovation and Digitisation carries out. For the rest, let those who implement them be responsible. Also, the judgements on these projects should be checked. Where there are facts that indicate other interests, the authorities should be informed and everything that is necessary in a fair country should be done,” said Minister Sebastian Burduja.
Former Prime Minister Dacian Ciolos claims that Gabriel Al-Baba’s name is unknown to him and that “under no circumstances” did he employ him in the chancellery of the government he led:
“I do not know this name. In no way did I hire him. The Chancellery was not mine but that of the government. I as PM only selected my PM’s cabinet members. I did not make or validate the recruitment of civil servants in the chancellery or in the general secretariat of the government. And this name doesn’t mean anything to me”, former Prime Minister Dacian Ciolos said.
Maxor Consulting, Athos Total Consulting and Darius Huțan did not respond to the requests for comments on the matter by the time the article was published.
Gabriel Al-Baba admitted that he participated and presented his offer in the meeting of the Tulcea County Council, but claims that “several companies” were at the meeting. He confirms that he knows Darius Huțan, but only “like 40-50 other consultants from all over the country”, because “the market is small”. He admits that he has been in the field, to town halls, but only because “he was invited” and went to present his software, not his consultancy.
Al-Baba did not explain why the websites of his own companies with which he wants to digitise Romania’s public system are not working, nor why mayors equate him with the two consultancy companies, even though he held no position in them.
Gabriel Al-Baba did not deny that he was the interface of the two firms in the field and did not answer any questions about his route in the world of politics or his current relations with the head of the PSD deputies, Alfred Simonis, the PNL Minister of Digitisation, Sebastian Burduja, or how he ended up and who co-opted him into the Cioloș Government:
“In the last few years I have been in over 300 town halls and I have tried to present an ecosystem that works, that fully complies with European and national legislation and that is regularly audited from a cybersecurity perspective by companies accredited by the Romanian Digitisation Authority (…);
(…) I called all the mayors, some of them answered me, others didn’t, our objective was to present the software product, to talk about it and to help them understand what quality and compliance with the law means in terms of IT systems;
Of those who responded, there were a few who invited me to the institution’s headquarters. The fact that I was present at a few TAUs (Territorial Administrative Units) to show what a digital ecosystem looks like is due to my job, if the customer invites you, you have to go and show them something. What could I do? Say no?
About Mr. Huțan from Maxor, I know him like I know 40-50 other consultants around the country, the market is small. You inevitably hear of one or another or bump into him in some institution. There are such consultants in every county (Darius Huțan is from Timiș, not Tulcea, where they were seen in the field, editor’s note) and each one has his own job, profession and expertise;
The meeting that took place in Tulcea was a public one and I clearly remember that several companies from several counties were present, not only the ones you mention (…); Our presence at the institutions was determined solely by the interest of these institutions to go through a digitisation process, hearing about our achievements as examples of good practice at other institutions; (…) Regarding the tender documents, documentations, I confess that I am not at all knowledgeable about them. Nobody has talked to me about this. The selection of the consultancy provider was the sole choice of the institutions. Nobody can force an institution to work with a particular provider.” (Gabriel Al-Baba’s full reply can be read here.)
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