Monday, November 17, 2014

NYT: In a Soft-Spoken Romanian Prosecutor, Some See an ‘Earthquake’

BUCHAREST, Romania — TELEVISION crews are on permanent standby outside the offices of Laura Codruta Kovesi, ready to transmit live images of the next episode of Romania’s most talked about and, for the country’s corruption-addled business and political elite, most terrifying drama in 25 years.

Unless they have jobs inside or another good excuse, nobody in Romania these days wants to be seen entering the wooden door on Stirbei Voda Street that leads to Ms. Kovesi, the soft-spoken 41-year-old who heads Romania’s National Anticorruption Directorate, a once-sleepy agency now leading an unexpectedly vigorous drive against graft-fueled thievery.

“This calm and self-effacing lady has become the most feared and, for some, the most hated person in Romania,” said Vladimir Tismaneanu, a professor of politics at the University of Maryland who headed a commission set up in Romania to examine crimes committed before the 1989 fall of the dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. Ms. Kovesi, he added, has set off the biggest “political earthquake” to shake Romania since 1989.

THOSE caught in Ms. Kovesi’s sights and their allies take a rather different view. They denounce her as a Stalinist and accuse her agency, which is known by its Romanian initials as D.N.A. and relies heavily on wiretaps, of reviving methods used by Mr. Ceausescu’s feared and omnipresent security service, the Securitate.

Ms. Kovesi, in an interview in her office adorned with religious icons, dismissed the allegation as absurd. She said that she and her team of prosecutors “graduated after 1989, so we have no idea what Securitate methods are.” Wiretapping, she added, was “not invented by D.N.A., but is used all over the world” by democratic countries with no history of Communist repression.

Her critics — notably a media group controlled by Dan Voiculescu, a political and business baron sentenced in August to 10 years in prison for corruption — have waged a relentless campaign to blacken her name and that of her agency.

Jurnalul National, a newspaper controlled by Mr. Voiculescu, called Ms. Kovesi Romania’s “Stalinist prosecutor,” while another of his properties, the Antena 3 television channel, likened her to Hitler as well as Stalin and accused her of taking money from a mobster.

Ms. Kovesi said she had grown accustomed to the slurs, noting that “the most negative attacks, the most defamatory statements, come from people who are being investigated by D.N.A.”

All the same, she filed a defamation lawsuit against Antena 3 in June over the mobster payment report and allegations about her private life as a single, divorced woman.

A tall former basketball player who works out regularly near her home in Bucharest, the capital, Ms. Kovesi shuns round-the-clock bodyguards but is watched over by the Protection and Guard Service, a state body responsible for protecting officials.

“I have a very normal life,” she said, shrugging off the risk. “I go to the cinema. I go to the gym.”

While playing down the fears she has stirred in Romania’s political class, she has decorated her office wall with a picture painted by a niece that features a scarecrow in a field shadowed by black birds. “They say that is me in Bucharest,” she said.

Ms. Kovesi said ordinary people she met never asked her to back off Mr. Voiculescu or others prosecuted by her anticorruption directorate. “Every time I go to the market, to the store or the cinema, I meet friendly people who congratulate me and who encourage the work we do here,” she said. “Not everybody in Romania commits corruption.”

Yet she acknowledged being dismayed that the general public, whatever its stated distaste for corruption, keeps voting for politicians suspected or even convicted of larceny. “It is extremely difficult to explain this contrast,” she said.

SET up in 2003, D.N.A. for years targeted only low-ranking state employees while giving big shots a wide berth.

“They were going after schoolteachers and train conductors. It was a mockery,” said Sorin Ionita, a policy analyst at Expert Forum, a research organization in Bucharest. This began to change a decade ago with the appointment of another woman, Monica Macovei, as justice minister, which was followed by legislation that prevented the agency from pursuing only small fry.

Now, all of the cases it investigates must involve bribes of more than 10,000 euros, around $12,500, and state employees above a certain level.

Romania’s Parliament has repeatedly tried to limit anticorruption efforts, with legislators complaining that they are being targeted for political reasons and proposing an amnesty law, a move Ms. Kovesi said she strongly opposed.

The mingling of politics with both corruption and the fight against it has become a particularly heated issue in recent weeks amid a presidential election, the second round of which will be held on Sunday. The vote will decide who replaces the current center-right president, Traian Basescu, who appointed Ms. Kovesi in May 2013. Mr. Basescu’s opponents saw the appointment as a move to ratchet up pressure on the Social Democratic Party of Victor Ponta, the center-left prime minister and the front-runner in the presidential election.

“Of course, there are lots of statements that we conduct political cases,” Ms. Kovesi said. “My answer is that we don’t open political cases.” She noted that her agency had brought corruption charges against members of many parties, not just Mr. Ponta’s, and had also jailed Mr. Basescu’s brother for taking money from a crime boss.

A CAREER prosecutor whose father was also a prosecutor, Ms. Kovesi studied law in the northwestern city of Cluj. After graduating in 1995, she took the first in a series of jobs in a Romanian justice system that the European Commission has regularly assailed as skewed by political interference and corruption. But despite much digging by her opponents, no solid evidence has come to light of any wrongdoing on her part.

The author of many articles on arcane legal issues and a recipient of commendations from the United States, Ms. Kovesi keeps a wall around her personal political views, avoiding the emotional hyperbole that often dominates public discourse in Romania in favor of clipped legalese.

Since Ms. Kovesi took over D.N.A. last year, what was a trickle of high-profile arrests and prosecutions has become a flood. Nearly all have ended in convictions, with her prosecutors recording a success rate of over 90 percent.

Her agency’s biggest scalp so far has been a former prime minister, Adrian Nastase, sentenced in January to four years in prison for taking bribes. He spent only six months behind bars, securing release for good behavior. But his conviction sent tremors through Romania’s political class, particularly the Social Democratic Party, to which he belonged.

Mr. Nastase’s trial was followed by a series of arrests in connection with the so-called Microsoft Case, a corruption saga involving the sale at inflated prices of Microsoft software licenses for use in Romanian schools. Nine former ministers are under investigation on accusations of taking bribes, though Ms. Kovesi said Microsoft “was not involved in any way” and was helping investigators get to the bottom of the affair.

So far this year, 16 legislators — seven senators and nine members of the lower house of Parliament — have been indicted, along with an army general, four prosecutors and 18 judges. Among those already placed in pretrial detention is Viorel Hrebenciuc, a Social Democratic power broker who was once considered untouchable.

“Nobody expected this to ever happen,” Mr. Ionita, the policy analyst, said. “It is unbelievable to see people like this put in jail.”

MS. KOVESI declined to comment on predictions by Mr. Ponta’s opponents that if, as expected, he wins the presidential race, he will rein in her work or replace her with a more malleable figure.

Mr. Ponta, in an interview, voiced no complaints about Ms. Kovesi’s performance, saying it had been his idea to appoint her in the first place. “She has been appointed on my proposal,” he said. “I see no reason to change anything.”

Ms. Kovesi has no illusions about the future. “It is important that the new president support the anticorruption fight,” she said. As long as this happens, “we have no reason to worry,” she added. “But there are reasons to worry if the president does not support our fight.”

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