Thursday, February 19, 2015

From basketball to law courts: Romanian prosecutor wins fans fighting graft

By Luiza Ilie

BUCHAREST, Feb 18 (Reuters) - Such has been the success of Romania's anti-corruption prosecutors that television crews are now permanently stationed outside their offices, waiting for the next politician, businessman or judge to be hauled in.

Romania's corruption-fighting agency, known by the local acronym DNA, secured a record 1,138 convictions last year, pursuing people who might once have been untouchable.

Graft has long been a deterrent to doing business in Romania, which is joint last among EU countries in Transparency International's corruption perception index and has been singled out by the European Union along with Bulgaria for special monitoring of its justice system.

But investigations into the prime minister's brother-in-law and father-in-law - himself a powerful member of the ruling party - as well as a sitting president's brother, government ministers and the head of a midsize political party have made for a steady stream of headlines.

The efforts of the DNA's more than 100 prosecutors have proved that many state contracts are handed out in exchange for favours or bribes, and about 7 percent of lawmakers elected in 2012 have been convicted or are under investigation for corruption.

Meanwhile, political pressure to drop cases touched a new peak last year as investigations reached the highest levels of politics, DNA chief Laura Kovesi told Reuters in an interview.

But if the earnest, towering 41-year-old former basketball player is worried, it doesn't show.

"If anything, prosecutors' resistance to such pressures has grown," said Kovesi, who was Romania's youngest prosecutor general and the first woman to hold the office.

"The pressure will continue for as long as we investigate such cases. But I think it is important for the political class to reach a certain maturity and understand that all prosecutors want ... is to get to the truth in criminal cases, and that we don't have any other interests."

DARK HINTS

The politicians' complaints have grown, as have the protests outside DNA headquarters. But Kovesi, whose father was also a prosecutor, has a protection detail similar to that of other officials, and says her life outside work is normal.

In January, a former presidential candidate under investigation hinted darkly that Kovesi owed her position to the influence of a senior secret service official, an accusation she dismissed as a smear.

Cristi Danilet, a judge who sits on the supreme magistrates' council, Romania's judicial regulator, said he was "scared by the extent of corruption cases because they point to a society that is sick from top to bottom".

"From the education and health sectors and all the way to the judiciary, politics and business - corruption is everywhere."

Graft exists in the judiciary partly because top prosecutors and some others are political appointees. But there have already been significant attempts to tackle the problem.

Last year, seven judges and 13 prosecutors were jailed for corruption. A judge at Romania's top court has been charged with joining an organised crime group, as well as accepting a BMW car and two dresses for his wife as bribes.

And no lesser figure than the chief prosecutor in charge of fighting organised crime is herself under investigation.

"It is definitely a conscious effort by the judiciary to solve its own problems," said Laura Stefan, a legal expert at the Expert Forum think-tank.

MAGISTRATES STILL BREAKING LAW

"The half-empty part of the glass is that the numbers are very high for a country like Romania. There remain many magistrates still breaking the law."

Romania started implementing judicial reforms as an aspiring member of the EU in 2004, when magistrates' independence was legally guaranteed for the first time.

The DNA, founded in 2002, was overhauled by narrowing its scope to focus only on high-level corruption. The first major cases went to trial under Kovesi's predecessor in 2005-2006. They resulted in a string of convictions, notably including former prime minister Adrian Nastase.

Prosecutors gradually gained expertise, and the number of cases started to rise, helped by intelligence service wire taps.

Now, the DNA enjoys something of a cult status among younger Romanians, and is trusted by twice as many people as the government. At rallies around last year's election campaign, there were shouts of "We love DNA!" and "DNA for president!".

The number of tip-offs has consequently grown, as has the number of politicians taking to the media to complain of "witch hunts".

"They say their political opponents are controlling the judiciary, or that prosecutors are controlling judges, and now that secret services are controlling prosecutors," Danilet said.

The European Commission's latest review praised Romania's judiciary, but noted that problems remained, especially in parliament, whose approval is required for a sitting MP to be investigated. Only this month, it blocked an investigation into a current senator and former economy minister.

Legal attempts to strengthen parliamentary immunity or weaken the judiciary are not uncommon, and Kovesi takes nothing for granted.

"Laws ... are constantly shifting and so there are some concerns that one legal change could confound or even block judicial reform," she said. (Editing by Matthias Williams and Kevin Liffey)

No comments: