By Daphne Psaledakis and Tsvetelia Tsolova
WASHINGTON/SOFIA (Reuters) -The United States on Wednesday imposed sanctions on three Bulgarians and 64 companies linked to them over alleged corruption, including an oligarch accused of planning to create a conduit for Russian political leaders to influence the Bulgarian government.
The Treasury Department in a statement called the move its single biggest action targeting graft to date.
Bulgaria ranks as the European Union's most corrupt member state, according to the Transparency International advocacy group. The Balkan country has repeatedly been criticized by the European Commission for failing to root out corruption and place a single high-ranking senior official behind bars for graft.
Bulgarian interim Prime Minister Stefan Yanev said he was informed by U.S. Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland by telephone about the move, part of efforts to effectively combat corruption in Bulgaria.
"In our relations with our partners and allies, we have unequivocally shared our conviction that the fight against corruption in all its forms should be our unconditional principled and practical priority," Bulgaria's foreign ministry said in a statement.
The move comes ahead of a July 11 snap parliamentary election in Bulgaria and after massive anti-corruption protests in 2020.
The Treasury Department said it imposed sanctions on businessman and oligarch Vassil Bozhkov, 64, accusing him of planning to create a channel for Russian leaders to influence the Bulgarian government and bribing government officials.
Bozhkov, a gambling tycoon and one of Bulgaria's richest men, fled the country in 2020 to escape criminal charges, including extortion, tax fraud and influence peddling, among others. He denies any wrongdoing and is now based in Dubai.
The Treasury Department also imposed sanctions on Delyan Peevski, a businessman and former member of parliament, and on Ilko Zhelyazkov, a government official who the department said was used by Peevski for conducting bribery schemes.
Sanctions also were imposed on 64 companies owned or controlled by Bozhkov and Peevski.
The sanctions block the people and companies blacklisted from accessing the U.S. financial system, freezing any of their U.S. assets and barring Americans from dealing with them.
The U.S. State Department also designated former Bulgarian officials Alexander Manolev, Petar Haralampiev, Krasimir Tomov, as well as Peevski and Zhelyazkov, over their alleged involvement in corruption, barring them and their families from entering the United States.
Peevski, 40, is a Bulgarian businessman who sold many of his real estate holdings and media in the past year. Critics at home see Peevski as a powerful behind-the-scenes power broker with strong influence on Bulgaria's judiciary and political elites.
The Treasury Department accused him of using "influence peddling and bribes to protect himself from public scrutiny and exert control over key institutions and sectors in Bulgarian society."
In a statement to the media, Peevski decried his blacklisting. He denied any involvement in corrupt activities and said he plans to take legal action against the sanctions.
(Reporting by Daphne Psaledakis and Doina Chiacu in Washington and Tsvetelia Tsolova in Sofia; Editing by Mark Heinrich, Will Dunham and Chizu Nomiyama)