Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Crusading women blaze justice trail in post-Soviet Romania

Associated Press

BUCHAREST, Romania (AP) - Prosecutor Denisa Cristodor made history last fall, launching Romania's first case against a communist-era prison guard suspected of crimes against humanity.

The 37-year-old is blazing a trail on another surprising front, as part of a vanguard of young women prosecutors and judges shaking up Romanian society by going after its sacred cows: ministers and moguls who bled the state of hundreds of millions, former prison commanders in communist-era prisons suspected of torture and murder.

Most of these women were in school when communism collapsed 25 years ago. Today they are slowly forging an independent justice system based on their belief that nobody is above the law.

Under communism, the justice system was a man's domain - which shielded fellow men in the ruling elite. That began to change with the advent of democracy and capitalism in the 1990s, when men left poorly paying state prosecutor and magistrate jobs to become lawyers or businessmen, leaving the door open for women. The result: 60 percent of Romania's prosecutors and judges today are women.

The "feminization of the justice system" is helping Romania shed its status as a swamp of corruption and patronage, said Cristian Parvulescu, deacon of the National School of Political Studies and Public Administration

"These women are stamping their own vision on Romania," said Parvulescu. "Before they were not able to do it and they are doing it in a courageous way."

The first winds of change came in 2005 after Traian Basescu was elected president on a vow to fight corruption. The following year, he appointed Laura Codruta Kovesi as Romania's first woman prosecutor general. She was only 33 at the time. Nearly a decade later, Kovesi is Romania's most powerful woman, spearheading an anti-corruption fight that fearlessly goes after some of Romania's most powerful figures.

In recent months, anti-corruption prosecutors have indicted the former finance minister over bribery allegations; charged Prime Minister Victor Ponta's brother-in-law on suspected graft; and investigated Basescu's brother, closest ally and son-in-law.

In 2014, the anti-corruption office secured a record 1,051 convictions, up from 743 the year before. Even more are expected this year. Among those convicted since January 2014 were a former prime minister, seven former ministers, a former deputy prime minister, four lawmakers, one European Parliament lawmaker, 39 mayors, 25 magistrates and two tycoons.

Basescu himself, who left office in December, is the target of an investigation led by female prosecutor Adina Petrescu on charges that he publicly threatened and tried to blackmail a senator who accused his family of wrongdoing.

Kovesi, a former professional basketball player, became a magistrate in 1995. "Twenty years ago, they said the prosecutor's office was not a place for women," she told The Associated Press. "They said we'd give up more easily ... I hope I have knocked down that belief."

Kovesi and her colleagues are regularly criticized by politicians and in the media, whose owners have been themselves been convicted of corruption. She now has security guards assigned to guard her.

"What is surprising is that corruption is present at levels and in all sectors," Kovesi said. "I saw people who were being investigated and they chose to continue corruption, to hide to use more sophisticated methods and disguise their bribes."

Cristodor's crusade began out of a belief that the horrors of the communist era must not go unpunished - no matter how far they retreat into the past.

In the past year, she has indicted the former commander of Romania's notorious Ramnicu Sarat prison and the commander of Periprava labor camp, where more than 100 died.

Alexandru Visinescu, 89, went on trial in September accused of crimes against humanity for the deaths of 12 prisoners at Ramnicu Sarat, where he was commander from 1956 to 1963. Even a quarter-century after communism, no former prison commander from that time had ever faced justice.

Ion Ficior faces the same charges for the deaths of 103 people at Periprava, which he ran from 1958 to 1963. His trial has not yet started.

Both men deny the charges and say they were following orders.

Cristodor has been compiling the cases against Visinescu and Ficior since 2013. She spoke to dozens of witnesses, traveling to the homes of those who were too sick or frail to make the journey to the prosecutor's office. And she visited Ramnicu Sarat where inmates were held in cramped, frigid cells.

"What surprised me is (former prisoners) made no material demands, the historic reparation was enough," she told The AP in her first media interview.

"It was a regime of physical and mental extermination," she said. "(Prisoners) woke up with snow on their hair because it so was cold and the water in their mugs froze. It was inhuman ... They communicated by coughing in Morse code."

Parvulescu says women like Kovesi and Cristodor have brought new respect for the law in Romania.

"Christian Orthodox countries are masculine societies where justice is the result of negotiation," he said. "Women are interested in moral values."

Former Romanian presidential candidate Udrea charged with corruption while minister

By Luiza Ilie

BUCHAREST (Reuters) - Romanian anti-corruption prosecutors said on Tuesday they had indicted former presidential candidate Elena Udrea on charges of accepting bribes and abuse of power from 2010 to 2012 while she served as regional development minister.

Seven other people were indicted alongside her in the case, including former economy minister Ion Ariton who was charged with abuse of power, the prosecutors said in a statement.

Romania is one of the European Union's most corrupt states but a crackdown on high-level corruption has earned prosecutors praise from Brussels and from foreign investors fed up with cronyism.

Udrea, a 41-year-old lawyer, is a centrist opposition lawmaker and close political ally of former president Traian Basescu. She ran for president in November but came fourth.

The prosecutors said there was evidence that while a minister, Udrea and people close to her took bribes from private firms in exchange for ensuring they would be paid on time for public works contracts.

The bribes outlined by prosecutors, some in Romania's leu currency and some in euros, add up to about 1.8 million euros ($1.9 million) at the current exchange rate.

Udrea has denied wrongdoing and repeatedly accused the country's anti-corruption prosecuting agency of bias and of having links to the secret services.

Prosecutors are also investigating her in other cases and she has been in custody since late February.

A large number of the corruption cases uncovered in recent years showed mayors, city councillors, lawmakers and ministers favoring certain companies for public works deals, and demanding a percentage of the contracts as bribes.

Prosecutors also alleged that Udrea used some of the bribes to finance the center-right party she belonged to at the time.

They also said she used 8.1 million lei ($1.95 million) of the regional development ministry's money to fund a private boxing event under the pretext of buying tourism advertising for Romania.

Ariton, now a senator, allegedly convinced ten state-owned companies to sponsor the private event for a total of 1.7 million lei ($410,000). State-owned firms are by law not allowed to sponsor private events. Ariton also denies wrongdoing.

According to World Bank figures, one in 10 businesses in Romania report being asked for bribes.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Romania's corruption fight puts the brakes on investment

By Matthias Williams and Luiza Ilie

BUCHAREST, April 8 (Reuters) - Romania's crackdown on corruption is having an unintended consequence: investment is slowing as many officials avoid approving projects lest they become the next target of the investigators.

Civil servants and ministers who would otherwise sign off on projects, sometimes but not always in return for bribes, have become hesitant. Even honest officials fear the deals will attract scrutiny by prosecutors and that they will join a long line of public figures to be investigated or imprisoned.

In the long term, most observers say, rooting out corruption will bring huge benefits to Romania, the European Union's second poorest country. For now though, it is delaying both private investment and the signing of contracts for firms to undertake projects for the state.

The latest casualty in the fight against graft is Finance Minister Darius Valcov, who resigned last month after being accused of taking bribes. Prosecutors later found more than 100 paintings, some by Picasso and Renoir, as well as gold bars and cash stashed away in various places including his safe. He denies wrongdoing.

The head of Romania's fiscal watchdog says the slowing of decision-making has helped to drag down capital expenditure, with net public investment spending as a share of GDP at a 7-year-old low, according to Eurostat data.

"By and large if you talk to most of the businesses I have come across they believe it (the anti-graft fight) was long overdue, some message had to be given," Ahmed Hassan, a managing partner at the consultancy Deloitte in Bucharest, told Reuters.

"The drawback of it - we have seen that in the last one year specifically, even vis-à-vis our projects - (is) decisions are just not happening. Some people are waiting, maybe it'll go away from me and someone else will do the approval."

"And that's just not good. Sometime strategic projects could be delayed because of over-nervous bureaucrats."

Business executives are reluctant to discuss openly which of their projects have been held up, fearing that publicity will lead to yet more delays.

However, Olguta Vasilescu, a prominent mayor, said local administrators are on a "signature strike".

Aristotel Cancescu, the head of the council in the central city of Brasov agrees. "At present it is a risk to work in local public administration," said Cancescu, who himself is under investigation for money-laundering and taking bribes.

"Anything can be interpreted and from what I know there is now a blockage at the county council and in many other local administrations, because people are afraid to sign anything," he said earlier this year.


Corruption has cost Romania dearly in the quarter of a century since Communism fell.

Data compiled by Reuters based on statements by prosecutors shows the problem. Investigations in 2014 suggest graft may have cost the state and private companies around 1.02 billion euros ($1.1 billion). That's enough to build 200 km (120 miles) of motorway in a country with some of the worst infrastructure in Europe. For a Factbox, click on

Bribery to secure contracts appears widespread, with local officials receiving cash, cars, holidays, clothes, free dental work and even trout and whisky in exchange for favours. One former judge was accused of taking bribes worth 83,000 euros including in the form a cemetery shrine.

"The local capital has been plagued by crony capitalism," Mihai Bogza, chairman of Romania's Foreign Investors Council and of lender Bancpost, told Reuters. "That's why we are very happy about the current fight against corruption."

"This being said, the fight against corruption is coming hand-in-hand with the fact that many public employees appear to be very reluctant to take on any kind of responsibility," he added. "Such attitudes should be clearly discouraged."

According to a study by consulting firm A.T. Kearney last year, Romania had the second-biggest black economy in Europe, after its neighbour Bulgaria.

One in 10 businesses report being asked for bribes, according to 2013 World Bank figures. The stigma of corruption is partly why Romania, along with Bulgaria, is kept out of passport-free EU Schengen zone until its performance improves.

"Public capital spending continues to be very low," said Ionut Dumitru, who heads the Fiscal Council, an independent authority which monitors the state budget.

"Many spending management authorities know they have problems with their contracts and the pace of works or approvals are delayed or postponed because they fear legal problems," said Dumitru, who is also chief economist at Raiffeisen Bank Romania.

Octavian Vidu, an investment manager at the China-backed CEE Equity Partners, stopped discussions on two projects after being asked for kickbacks. A supporter of the crackdown, he says businesses traditionally close to politicians will struggle to cope, and some might eventually become ripe for acquisition.

"It's going to be a vacuum. However painful for everybody, I think that's going to bring a different level of trust for investors like us," he told Reuters. "There is a lot of fear, there is a lot of caution out there, but I'm not sure if the old habits have died yet." ($1 = 0.9210 euros) (editing by David Stamp)

Friday, April 3, 2015

FT: Romanian twins throw wrench in US-EU trade deal?

Meet the Miculas: two twin brothers, Ioan and Viorel, whose battle with EU law will be of interest to anyone following Europe’s fitful trade negotiations.

The duo’s battle to save their beer-to-biscuits food empire in northern Romania may not seem an obvious proxy for an increasingly bitter fight over the EU’s trade deals with the US and Canada. But it cuts to the heart of one of the most politically contentious issues surrounding both trade accords: the status of international investment tribunals.

The brothers, who also hold Swedish citizenship, have had a terrible start to the week.

On Monday, the EU said they would have to repay all the subsidies they received to build up their business in the poor northern Romanian county of Bihor, on the Hungarian border. Their factories, which produce brands such as Servus beer and Rony biscuits, depended on what Brussels ruled was illegal state aid. According to their lawyers, the pair had decided to invest in a region as impoverished as Bihor on the understanding that Romania would subsidise them. On that pledge hang some 9,000 jobs.

Their business model, which predated Romania’s accession to the EU, came unstuck when Bucharest decided to join the European club. Competition authorities no longer allowed this kind of state largesse. In 2005, Bucharest cut the funds to the brothers in Bihor. (Romania finally joined in 2007).

This is where things get interesting legally, and the trade aficionados will start to realise something is afoot.

As Swedish citizens, the Miculas took their case to an international tribunal and won. At the end of 2013, the International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes awarded a settlement of $250m from the Romanian government because of its suspension of the subsidies. It was one of the largest sums ever awarded by an international investment tribunal. To Brussels, the award of damages meant state aid was now effectively being paid “through the back door”.

Anyone following Europe’s landmark trade deal with the US will know that these international tribunals are an incendiary issue. They allow companies who feel they have been aggrieved by local legal authorities to appeal to arbitrators appointed under the terms of trade deals. To EU and US trade officials, they are an important way to protect investor rights, while opponents fear that they could undermine national and EU law. Opposition is especially strong in Germany and among Socialists in the European Parliament.

So, the involvement of a tribunal has put Brussels in a bind. On the one hand, EU trade officials have been talking up tribunals as a good thing to have in trade accords, such as that with the US and Canada. On the other hand, EU competition officials have been seeking to overturn the Micula brothers’ verdict, one of the most closely watched rulings from the ICSID.

What does this all add up to? For EU trade officials, there is no problem here. They say any tribunals included in the US deal will be designed to avoid any of the problems that cropped up in past cases. They argue the Miculas are something of an anomaly because their case is complicated by Romania’s accession to the EU. EU law has simply triumphed in clearing up a minor intra-EU glitch. In fact, many in Brussels hope future tribunals will clear up the confusion created by existing bilateral trade accords, like the one between Sweden and Romania.

Investors may well not see it the same way. The European Commission’s decision on Monday means Brussels has overridden the ICSID – and that is a highly significant development. Yes, the Micula case has peculiarities but every complex investment case is going to have peculiarities. Many will involve countries outside EU law or new members of the bloc. The Micula case is certainly a significant show of intent from the commission.

So, is that it: Brussels trumps international tribunals? Not quite. There will probably be one final chapter in this saga. The case could well go to appeal at the European Court of Justice. Lawyers say both brothers are considering an appeal. To the Miculas’ supporters, the EU is challenging perfectly sound treaties that investors should be able to trust (a Romania-Sweden trade accord and the ICSID framework itself).

The only thing we can take for granted is that the Micula brothers will only fan the debate about tribunals, not lay it to rest.