Can Europe Make It?

Corruption in Romania: Ponta's inconvenient truth

Romania's National Anticorruption Directorate has been diligently prosecuting mayors, judges and businessmen at an unprecedented rate. But now they have their sights set on their biggest target: Prime Minister Victor Ponta.

Stephen McGrath
16 June 2015

Romania PM Victor Ponta. Demotix/Putan Cornel. Some rights reserved.Romania’s Prime Minister Victor Ponta missed a hearing with anticorruption prosecutors today, following being called in for questioning earlier this month at the headquarters of the National Anticorruption Directorate (DNA), a specialized agency that is charged with investigating high-level corruption.

The premier claimed on his Facebook page to have flown out to Turkey for ‘complicated’ surgery on his knee, after Ponta’s lawyer asked prosecutors to postpone the hearing.

Ponta, whose centre-left Social Democratic Party (SNP) has a comfortable majority in Parliament, is suspected of over 17 counts of forgery, conflict of interest, tax evasion and money laundering.

Since June 5, when Ponta was first called in for questioning, Parliament has blocked prosecutors’ requests to lift Ponta’s parliamentary immunity, and last Friday survived a no-confidence motion from opposition.

Ponta’s immunity means that DNA can only investigate him for activities before he took office, when he was still a working lawyer.  So an investigation into forgery, tax evasion and money laundering remain to go ahead.

The country’s president, Klaus Iohannis, has called multiple times for Ponta’s resignation since the allegations were revealed, but so far Ponta has refused to go.

"It is a proof of maximum irresponsibility and lack of respect for public opinion that most lawmakers are preventing justice from doing its duty and are willing to destroy the institution of Parliament ... and harm Romania's image to save a single person," President Iohannis said in a statement.

Prosecutors claim that Ponta fabricated documents for payments of about 40,000 euros ($45,000) - for work that was never carried out - for his friend Dan Sova’s law firm, whom he later appointed as transport minister.

Last week Parliament were attempting to push through 22 amendments to legal code, that would change ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ to ‘beyond any doubt,’ which would make it far harder to prosecute graft.

The Superior Magistrates’ Council ruled against SNP’s 22 proposals on June 15, but this move is not irreversible.

For too long Romanian elites have enjoyed the spoils of personal gain often at public cost or by ill means, without ever being held accountable.

But over the last few years Romania, one of Europe’s most graft-ridden nations, has been running an anticorruption campaign that has seen over a thousand individuals convicted in the last year alone.

The whip that is now being cracked in the form of DNA, has convicted over a thousand individuals of corruption, including politicians, judges, prosecutors, and businessmen, tallying almost ten-times the amount of convictions in 2006.

Among the convicted are 24 mayors, five members of parliament, two ex-ministers, seven judges and 13 prosecutors, and former Prime Minister Adrian Nastase (2000-2004), who was investigated for bribery and blackmail and sentenced to four years in jail in January 2014.

In that year DNA convicted 1,138 individuals, more than 90% that were indicted.

Ponta is the first serving prime minster to be under investigation, so no one appears to be immune. Initially the DNA taskforce went after smaller figures, but eventually turned its attention to higher-level graft of more than 10,000 euros ($11,268).

Christian Ghinea, Director at Romanian Center for European Policies, says: “We have this anticorruption campaign which has had huge successes and a consistent record, and what questioning of Ponta says is that they are able to press some charges, it’s not as though Ponta is a particular victim of this,”

“DNA has not lost cases when it comes to big fishes; I assume they are considering the evidence quite well before sending the case to court.”

Ponta is no stranger to scandal but has survived thus far in Romania’s political quagmire. In December 2014 Ponta renounced his doctorate after plagiarism claims surrounding the validity of his law thesis. This came a month after a surprise defeat in the presidential election where he lost out to Iohannis.

Iohannis, in his presidential campaign, pledged to clean up corruption.

If convicted of any of the recent charges, Ghinea believes Ponta’s career will be over: “I think that the pressure from within the party will be big enough to end his career. We will have a prime minister going to court and answering the questions, it will be a huge embarrassment to the government and the party,”

“It will bigger than the Nastase conviction because he [Ponta] is the prime minister in function, but on the other hand Nastasse was more difficult because it was a novelty back than. Nastase was prime minister and it was always more difficult to start where no one did it before.”

Other high-profile Romanians that have been convicted with corruption charges this year are Elena Urdea, a glamorous MP and former tourism minister. She was charged in February on counts of money laundering, influence peddling, and taking bribes during her reign as MP.

Urdea, a lawyer by trade, finished fourth in last year’s presidential election and was indicted with Ion Ariton, a former economy minister, who was charged with abuse of power. 

Part of the terms to support Romania’s ascension into the EU in 2007 - some eight years ago - was for it to put an end to corruption, which reaches all facets of society in this Eastern European state, and levels the country on the EU corruption scale alongside Bulgaria, Greece, and Italy.

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