Romania’s anti-corruption services are reminiscent of Securitate

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Anti-corruption chief Laura Kovesi [Euractiv Romania]

SRI, Romania’s domestic intelligence service, is evolving into what many regard as the Securitate Version 2.0, a reference to Nicolae Ceaușescu’s feared security service, writes Nick Kochan.

Nick Kochan is a freelance investigative journalist and commentator on politics, banking and financial services, and on regulation and compliance.

Romania entered the European Union on the basis that it had dealt with its legacy of corruption inherited from Nicolae Ceaușescu, the leader of one of the most corrupt and ruthless regimes in Central Europe. That corruption accompanied its early privatisations and persuaded the EU to pause its membership until 2007.  The energetic work of an anti-corruption agency called the National Anticorruption Directorate, (DNA) persuaded the EU powers that the country was serious about clamping down on its corrupt system. In due course, a former prime minister, a number of ministers and many other politicians were prosecuted by the agency.

The question the EU must urgently address now is whether that clampdown on corruption has gone too far. The anti-corruption system, say its many critics, regards itself as above the law and, together with the SRI, Romania’s domestic intelligence service, is evolving into what many regard as the Securitate Version 2.0, a reference to Ceaușescu’s feared security service.

There are countless clues pointing in this direction, including intimidation of judges, use of investigative powers against political or even personal foes, excessive pre-trial publicity and “preventive detention”, improper and potentially illegal forms of plea-bargaining to secure testimony against high-profile perpetrators, and continued use, despite court prohibitions, of intrusive counter-terrorism methods in the investigation of corruption cases.

Corruption in Romania remains a serious problem, hampering the country’s economic development and dividing people from their politicians. According to the latest Corruption Perceptions Index published by Transparency International, it is the third worst in the EU, just ahead of Italy. More disturbing for the Romanians who are very keen to join the Schengen agreement guaranteeing freedom of movement across EU country borders, Romania’s standing on TI ratings is falling.

What appears like a successful prosecutor on the basis of its conviction rate of 92% of all cases brought is more reminiscent of a Chinese court where the judge is too afraid of the prosecutor to acquit a defendant for fear of retribution. European officials like Jean-Claude Juncker, who has spoken positively about the country’s prospects of joining Schengen, should know that this greatly exceeds rates obtained in Western countries.

The massive number of cases in Romania where corruption has been alleged – over 10,000 as of 2015 – produced just 1,200 indictments, an indication of the way the agency manipulates corruption allegations to support its cases. Another quasi-judicial tactic used to threaten defendants is that of pre-trial detention, where a defendant can be detained for 180 days while the case is being investigated. The threat of this form of detention is enough to persuade many defendants to cooperate.

The DNA has as its tool a corruption law that is exceptionally wide by European standards. This allows politicians to be charged with ‘abuse of office’ as well as with more standard corruption charges such as giving or accepting bribes. So the former deputy prime minister Gabriel Oprea was charged by the DNA after his police outrider was killed in a traffic accident. His right to the outrider was challenged by the DNA who claimed it was an ‘abuse of office.’

The most serious allegation brought against the DNA is that it is no longer accountable to anyone. While the broad corruption law can easily be applied to many individuals in a country where corruption is endemic, such vendettas require the connivance of the agency and its leadership. Here particular flak is thrown at the head of the DNA, Laura Kövesi, a 43-year-old lawyer. The daughter of a chief prosecutor in the Transylvania County of Sibiu, she rose swiftly through the ranks and in 2006 was appointed chief prosecutor for Sibiu city with DIICOT, the Directorate for Investigating Organized Crime and Terrorism. Nine months later she became the first woman and the youngest Prosecutor General for the nation. She was appointed DNA’s chief in 2013.

The geography and Kövesi’s background are important because, coincidentally, while she was a rising young star in the Sibiu prosecutor’s office, Romanian President Klaus Iohannis was the local mayor. Iohannis was a physics teacher and later a school inspector before being elected mayor in 2000, a position he held until 2014 when he ran for and won the nation’s presidency.

Local mayors are not paid much in Romania. In 2000 Iohannis and his wife acquired several properties locally. The seller had acquired them through Romania’s restitution program, through which descendants were entitled to claim back from state ownership properties expropriated by the former Communist regime. Restitution fraud has been a serious problem, with some experts estimating that at least 20% of restitution claims have been fraudulent.

The Iohannis family earned an estimated €600,000 from rents on its Sibiu properties, roughly €37,500 annually, a comfortable supplementary income in a low-wage economy like Romania.

That income has now come to a halt. Sibiu County municipal authorities went to court claiming that the restitution claim that ownership was based on was false. The courts agreed and titles to the properties were returned to the municipality. Though Iohannis appealed, higher courts have ruled against him. His lawyers have now returned to court using an unusual legal technicality to seek nullification of the result. However, the ruling on the fraudulence of the original restitution claim cannot now be overturned.

This was a civil case. No criminal charges have ever been brought. But private investigators who have alleged they were engaged on the president’s behalf last year have since said they were told he was worried.

The Israeli sleuths, arrested in mid-investigation of Kövesi, later told Israeli police that Iohannis was afraid that the DNA would bring his wife in for interrogation, according to leaked transcripts of the police interviews, widely published in the Romanian media in recent weeks. Mrs. Iohannis and her mother are reportedly co-signatories on some of the former Iohannis properties.

Kövesi works hand in glove with the SRI, to entrap targets and obtain evidence against them. In some cases the SRI brings a case to the agency, in other cases the agency brings in the SRI to support its case with wiretapping of targets. Defendants speak of humiliation in front of the media, the threatening of relatives of defendants with investigation and prosecution if they fail to comply with prosecutors’ demands and the use of compromising material to damage a target’s standing. Judges who fail to deliver a prosecution are said to have been threatened.

The way the agency routinely breaches Chinese walls between the executive, judiciary and law enforcement represents a flagrant breach of individual rights. This is clearly incompatible with EU objectives not to say membership. At the very least, careful thought needs to be given to the country’s membership of Schengen unless its so-called anti-corruption system is reined in.

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