Children electrocuted in Georgia, construction company with corrupt past questioned

Three children were electrocuted Thursday when they climbed into a newly renovated city fountain to fetch a ball in the Georgian capital Tbilisi. The fountain was renovated by a company whose owners were previously convicted of corruption.

Tbilisi city officials at the opening of Vake Park. (Photo: OCCRP)A 13-year-old girl has died while the other two children were taken to hospital, one in critical condition.

Vake Park – where the fountain is located – had officially reopened to visitors the day before, October 12, after a two-year remodeling project.

“Something terrible happened, it’s very difficult for everyone,” Tbilisi Mayor Kakha Kaladze told reporters. “And of course the investigation will decide everything. Everyone, including me, will be held accountable for the crime. If I have committed any crime, I am willing to answer to the law.”

In October 2021, a company called LTD Greenservice+ was awarded the contract to renovate the well for a fee of approximately GEL 11.8 million, or nearly $4.3 million. Due to the project, the company submitted six inspection reports to the mayor’s office. The inspections were carried out by private companies contracted by Greenservice+. All reports claimed that the work had been carried out properly.

“The refurbishment work was carried out in accordance with the planning and cost accounting documents,” says the report of the final inspection carried out on August 25th.

Greenservice+ was hired for the project despite being mentioned in a 2018 report by Transparency International Georgia on companies that should be banned from participating in public procurement because two of their owners have been convicted on corruption charges in the past.

In 2007, when Lasha Purtskhvanidze was the governor of a district in Tbilisi and Koba Kharshiladze was his deputy, the two registered a company with a similar name, Greenservice LLC, on behalf of acquaintances. The company competed for and won public contracts while its two secret founders sat on the tender committee.

Purtskhvanidze was arrested on corruption charges in 2013, pleaded guilty and was fined, while Kharshiladze was jailed for two years.

Still, Greenservice+, which the two registered in 2010, began bidding on government tenders in 2013 — the year of their conviction — and has since won numerous multimillion-dollar government contracts, including the renovation of the well. Purtskhvanidze and Kharshiladze both currently own 33% of the shares in the company.

On October 12, Mayor Kaladze, whose office issued the tender, attended the opening of the renovated park and made a statement to the press highlighting the works on the fountain.

“The second phase of the works was the rehabilitation of the small cascade and the round fountain, which were completed and turned out to be beautiful,” Kaladze said. “I am sure that when the work is fully completed and the main cascade is rehabilitated, it will be one of the best places to gather, relax and unwind. In addition, since this space is used by many people, we decided to add a special area for children, where additional new attractions will be arranged.”

On the day of the tragedy, messages celebrating the opening of the fountain were quickly deleted from the Tbilisi City Hall website.

OCCRP tried to contact Greenservice+ Director Lasha Purtskhanidze but his phone was off. The Interior Ministry later announced that he was being interrogated along with other responsible persons.

Purtshanidze, who was released on Friday evening, told journalists that the company had been testing the well for two months and that no problems were found.

“The only thing I will say is that it looks like a preordained action, I can’t say anything else, the investigation will show,” he said.

At a briefing on Thursday, Deputy Interior Minister Aleksandre Darakhvelidze promised a thorough investigation into the tragedy. Authorities are interviewing people from LTD Greenservice+, city hall employees, teachers and other officials from the No. 55 Public School who attended the children. Those responsible for her death would be punished to the “full severity” of the law, he added.

According to the tender contract, the Tbilisi Municipal Laboratory, the state agency that oversees civil engineering throughout the city, should oversee the work to be carried out by Greenservice+. OCCRP tried to contact the lab’s director, Lasha Samkharadze, but his phone was also off.

On Thursday evening, demonstrators gathered in front of the city hall and later in front of the parliament, demanding the resignation of Mayor Kaladze.