By Luiza Ilie
BUCHAREST (Reuters) - Romanian prosecutors have opened a criminal investigation into the father-in-law of Prime Minister Victor Ponta as part of a wider case related to recovering land seized under the country's communist dictatorship, the prosecutor's office said on Wednesday.
Ilie Sarbu, himself a powerful figure in the ruling Social Democrat party and a senator since 2004, is accused of abuse of power and supporting an organised crime group in a case where roughly 43,000 hectares (430 sq km) of forest land was illegally granted to private third parties in 2012.
The allegations have erupted during campaigning for a presidential election that Ponta is widely expected to win, and just two days after a row broke out about Ponta's alleged role as a spy in the late 1990s.
Neither may fatally wound him and the latest poll gives Ponta a 10-point lead over his nearest rival in the first round on Nov. 2.
Sarbu and others involved in the case were called in for hearings at prosecutors' offices in the central city of Brasov. Sarbu declined to comment to reporters waiting outside. Calls by Reuters to the ruling party's press office and to its senate group were not answered.
Viorel Hrebenciuc, another ruling party lawmaker named in the statement as being under investigation, told reporters he had been informed of the charges brought against him. He declined to elaborate before he had consulted his lawyer.
There was no suggestion that Ponta himself is involved in the Sarbu case.
Romania joined the European Union in 2007 but remains one of its poorest and most corrupt member states, although anti-corruption prosecutors have won praise from Brussels for their efforts to combat high-level graft. The European Commission has the country's justice system under special monitoring.
Prosecutors said that in addition to Sarbu and Hrebenciuc, they were also investigating one other lawmaker as well as the head of the state forest administration agency Romsilva. Romsilva officials were not immediately available for comment.
"The damage that was created through Romsilva is worth 303.9 million euros ($390 million)," the statement said.
Thousands of Romanians are still waiting for compensation or the return of property seized under communism before Stalinist leader Nicolae Ceausescu's violent overthrow in 1989. Disputes over land ownership, inefficiency and red tape have hampered efforts to return land to their rightful owners.
Ponta has weathered several political storms since coming to power. Shortly after he became prime minister in 2012, he faced down calls to resign over accusations he had plagiarized his doctoral thesis. He said the charges were politically motivated.
Later in 2012, he drew a severe rebuke from the European Union over his efforts to impeach President Traian Basescu in a national referendum, raising concerns over the rule of law.
Earlier this week, Basescu accused Ponta of serving as an undercover intelligence officer between 1997 and 2001, charges he dismissed as "all lies" to smear him.
"I think neither will have a major impact on Ponta's campaign," said political commentator Mircea Marian.
"His type of electorate wouldn't necessarily believe that being an undercover spy is a bad thing. In the case of his father-in-law, it will be some time before details of the case emerge and the public understands the depth of it."