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Criminal investigation into government masks contract

The masks in question arrived in packs of five rather than individual packaging. © Belga

The Brussels prosecutor’s office has begun a criminal investigation into the purchase of 15 million face masks by the federal defence ministry from the Luxembourg company Avrox, a spokesperson has confirmed.

In late May, the national security council announced that the wearing of face masks would be compulsory on public transport, including trains, starting on May 4. The government announced that it would provide one free face mask to every member of the public over the age of 12.

The defence ministry was given the job of finding suppliers, put the job out to tender, and came back with two suppliers. Tweeds & Cotton, a Ghent-based clothing company, would supply three million masks by May 24. The lion’s share of the contract, for 15 million masks, would be supplied by Avrox, a company based in Luxembourg.

The alarm was immediately sounded by companies in the textiles sector who had bid for the contract but had failed to be chosen.

While Tweeds & Cotton is a company active in the textiles industry, Avrox appeared to be no more than a postal box in an office in Luxembourg, with no connection to the industry at all.

Companies also questioned why a government contract would go to a company outside Belgium at all, let alone one with dubious credentials.

The problems persisted when it became clear that Avrox would not be able to deliver the masks on time. That would mean a financial penalty, but at the same time the government was faced with the embarrassment of having made masks compulsory and then failed to provide what it had promised.

Defence minister Philippe Goffin (MR) has defended the contract from the start, and pointed out that the penalty meant the masks – when they eventually arrived – would cost the taxpayer less.

The masks finally became available to the public this past week.

However there were more embarrassments to come.

When the Avrox masks did arrive, it was found that they did not meet the requirement that they be machine-washable to 60 degrees. Instead, the masks should be hand-washed at no higher than 30 degrees.

Goffin argued that the 60 degree question was a recommendation, and not a strict condition. Competing firms who had been turned down for the contract pointed out that their masks would have conformed either way.

Now, in the latest development, the company Oeko-Tex, which was given the job of certifying the Avrox masks for the defence ministry, has pointed out that the certification number used on the manual provided by Avrox on how to use the masks was withdrawn from circulation in 2016, and is no longer valid.

As a result, Oeko-Tex is unable to find out who certified the masks before they were delivered to the ministry.

The criminal investigation into the contract is based on a document filed by the central service for the fight against corruption. That service is normally concerned with matters relating to bribery, misuse of public funds, conflict of interest and embezzlement in public procurement, grants, permits and recognitions.

The prosecutor’s office said no criminal offence has to date been established, said spokesperson Denis Goeman. “However the investigation is not yet complete.”

Avrox issued a statement: “The prosecutor’s office is independent and has the right to carry out and investigations it deems necessary. Avrox has nothing to hide and will fully cooperate with the judicial authorities.”

Alan Hope
The Brussels Times