(Reuters) - A Romanian anti-corruption watchdog has said the ruling leftist alliance is trying to pressure it to drop its investigations of senior figures ahead of a December election.
The head of the National Integrity Agency (ANI) said politicians were trying to intimidate his organization after it notified three ministers and a state official last week that it was investigating them for possible conflicts of interest.
"The political pressures we have recently seen are the most aggressive since ANI was founded," Horia Georgescu told Reuters. "They are meant to discourage and intimidate the agency's ongoing investigations."
The ANI, set up after Romania joined the European Union five years ago, has been praised by Brussels but is resented by politicians at home. During the 2008-2012 parliamentary term, it discovered 42 lawmakers had conflicts of interest or had amassed dubious wealth.
Since Friday, when it notified the three ministers and the government's deputy secretary general that they were under investigation, politicians have accused the ANI of trying to interfere with elections and making politicized decisions.
The agency says the politicians either had wealth they could not account for or had worked for institutions that dealt with their ministries, creating conflicts of interest. All four have denied wrongdoing and said they would sue the ANI.
Prime Minister Victor Ponta, whose Social Liberal Union (USL) leads in opinion polls and is likely to win a December 9 parliamentary election, dismissed his deputy secretary general on Tuesday and asked the three ministers to explain themselves. He has previously sacked two ministers over similar issues.
ANI's investigations also prompted resignations from the two previous centre-right governments, which were viewed by many Romanians as corrupt.
Complaints by ANI of political intimidation are likely to be viewed badly by Brussels, which expressed concern over the rule of law earlier this year when Ponta's USL tried to unseat rival President Traian Basescu.
The EU still has Romania's justice system under special monitoring and criticizes it for failing to root out widespread corruption.
In the last seven years, anti-corruption prosecutors have put 23 lawmakers and 15 ministers and deputy ministers on trial.
Georgescu said graft often crossed party lines. ANI studies showed local administrations shared public contracts and funds among parties, while officials handling EU funds routinely had their relatives bid for contracts.
Parliament has declined prosecutor requests this year to investigate several politicians and this month voted that one USL deputy, a former culture minister, can keep his seat despite a Supreme Court ruling he should not hold public office.
"This sets a precedent that it is possible they will not be sanctioned in any way, regardless of court decisions," Georgescu said. "I have serious fears that, after the December election, the progress that has been registered could be reversed, judging by recent public political statements."
Transparency International ranks Romania as one of the EU's most corrupt states. It is excluded from the passport-free Schengen zone and has had EU funds potentially worth billions of euros blocked due to graft concerns.
Analyst Sergiu Miscoiu of the CESPRI political think tank said there was a risk that, after the election, politicians would seek to limits the power of ANI, prosecutors and the courts.
"ANI is the most detested institution by Romanian politicians, yet so very necessary," he said.
(Reporting by Luiza Ilie; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)