Understanding Romania’s anticorruption hunt

 

by Vlad Stoicescu

Opening scene

Legs crossed, Florian Coldea was sometimes sitting with his feet on the table, a wide brimmed hat covering his head as if he was a Texas Ranger accidentally teleported in one of the offices of the National Anticorruption Directorate (NAD), Romania’s top law enforcement body for combating high-level fraud and abuse of power. Dozens of prosecutors and judicial police officers working in the building that houses the NAD’s headquarter in downtown Bucharest have supposedly seen the cowboy looks of Florian Coldea passing through the corridors. He even had an office at his disposal, as one of the country’s top investigative journalists, Catalin Tolontan, recently reported. Under the condition of anonymity, a judge told Tolontan about Florian Coldea’s frequent visits to the NAD’s headquarter in the months leading to a series of high-profile pre-trial arrests, implying that there’s a connection between the two.

Florian Coldea is not the average man to be seen walking his brimmed hat on the hallways of the Anticorruption Directorate. He’s the First Deputy Director of the Romanian Intelligence Service, in charge of operative issues. It’s a position that grants him access to highly sensitive information about Romania’s political and economical elite. And it’s the kind of information that has made the National Anticorruption Directorate in Bucharest one of the most efficient, well-known and praised such agencies in the European Union. But the way this information gets compiled, assessed and turned into an indictment file constantly fosters the view that Romania’s anti-corruption drive is not just the story of tackling high-level abuses of power in a country that has seen more than two decades of fraud, misuse of public funds, unexplained wealth of the political elite and a very low record of upholding the rule of law. Some say that it could also be the story of a larger operation whose judicial proceedings make up only one side of the issue. The other side involves the somewhat murky and proactive involvement of the Intelligence Service in the NAD’s investigations, but also the sense that the whole thing has also something to do with the current geopolitical situation in Eastern Europe.

Romania’s anti-corruption framework

To get a glimpse of what is happening one should understand first the legal mechanisms that put in motion Romania’s anti-corruption framework. The National Anticorruption Directorate was set up in 2002. Back then it was a step towards judicial reform and compliance with European standards in a period in which Bucharest was negotiating the country’s accession to the EU. For a couple of years it was just a “showcase institution”, formally highlighting the political will to combat Romania’s pervasive corruption without any real results. After the change of power in Bucharest, at the end of 2004, and the start of Traian Basescu’s presidency (author’s note: Basescu held the position from December 2004 to December 2014, after winning a second term in 2009), the Anticorruption Directorate started working as a true prosecution agency for combating high-level fraud and abuse of power. Changing the legal framework under which the NAD operated helped – but truly decisive were the political guarantees that the agency could continue carrying out its tasks without undue pressure. Traian Basescu later said that at the time it was a question of entering or not entering the EU – should the anti-corruption effort had not been truly supported Romania would probably not have made it into the Union. In some ways, it still wasn’t enough. Romania was accepted as a member in January 2007 under the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism, a safeguard measure that assesses each year progress with judicial reform and the fight against corruption. Eight years later, the CVM is still in place and, as the high-profile arrests and indictments keep coming every day, the only certainty is that there is more to come.

Statistics certainly support this assessment. With each year, the NAD’s track record of investigations and indictments has improved. In the past eight years, the agency has pressed charges in over 5000 cases, in 9 out of 10 cases court decisions confirming the prosecution’s allegations. In 2012, 743 persons were convicted in NAD cases. In 2013 the number rose to 1051. And last year alone there were 1138 convictions obtained in court by Anticorruption prosecutors. Out of them, 24 were mayors, 5 members of Parliament, 2 ex-ministers and one former prime-minister. Another 16 MPs were formally indicted in 2014. In perspective, almost 10% of the Romanian MPs voted into office in 2012, when the last parliamentary elections took place, were investigated or indicted by NAD prosecutors.

And the anticorruption drive is only getting bigger, gaining momentum with every charge and every remand. Take the previous couple of months. The chief prosecutor of the Directorate for Investigating Organized Crime and Terrorism was detained for bribery in a high-profile case involving several businessmen with well established political connections. The president of Romania’s National Integrity Agency (a body in charge of verifying the assets and interests of public officials) was recently taken into custody in the same case. A by-now former judge at the Constitutional Court was accused of corruption by NAD prosecutors. The brother-in-law of the country’s current Prime Minister is going through pre-trial detention in another case dealing with embezzlement of public funds. Romania’s finance Minister had to give up the job as he was remanded recently under allegations that he had set up a network of bribes in public works tenders. Many municipal mayors and presidents of county councils share the same fate, being held in custody or under house arrest. The owner of Romania’s biggest news agency is detained, while another media mogul (who controls several TV outlets and the most popular news television) is serving a 10-year prison sentence for corruption.

The fall from grace of Elena Udrea

Above all, there’s Elena Udrea, a political femme fatale who formerly served as a minister and a power broker under Traian Basescu’s presidency. She was Basescu’s closest confidant and ally, functioning – in her very own words – as a “parallel source of information for the President”. Various scandals and corruption allegations have targeted Udrea over the years, but not a single legal move was made against her until Traian Basescu ended his two terms in office, in December 2014. After that, things escalated quickly for Elena Udrea: she was accused of fraud and bribery in two different cases by NAD prosecutors and placed under pre-trial detention. A web of institutional corruption publicly unfolded after Elena Udrea’s fall from grace, but nobody in charge with Romania’s law enforcement system has even tried to explain how that network expanded to such extent without the Anticorruption Directorate and Intelligence Service taking notice.

Elena Udrea’s story is somewhat telling of the country’s anticorruption drive. Though no actual proof exists, there is the peculiar sense that justice hasn’t been always done blindfolded.

Suggesting right now that the NAD’s prosecution activity could be partially targeted is not a very popular argument in Romania, though. As recent polls show, trust in the agency’s work is as high as ever, with more and more Romanians seeing the indictments and remands as a sign that the “losers” of the country’s transition from communism to market economy are finally holding the “winners” accountable. The winners are the politicians and businessmen that have made fortunes through fraud, corruption and abuse of power.

The role of the Intelligence Service

Countless numbers of reporters wait each day in front of the NAD’s headquarter to see who is the next big fish caught by the agency’s prosecutors. Up in her office, Laura Codruta Kovesi – chief prosecutor of the Anticorruption Directorate – is determined to keep the current pace. She recently requested more prosecutor positions for the agency and more money, arguing that there’s simply too much work right now to be efficiently done with the current personnel. The NAD is unique in the region as it incorporates, apart from prosecutors who lead investigations, judicial police officers and economic, financial and IT experts. And it may also be unique for the bond it has developed with the Intelligence Service. It’s a relationship underlined in the NAD’s dispatches that often point out the help received in prosecutors’ investigations from the Intelligence Service.

From a legal point of view, this help should be understood as technical support. Many of NAD’s cases involve wire tapping, which is done by the Intelligence Service who has the necessary infrastructure. But the system contains very few checks and balances. Nobody really knows if the Intelligence Service is controlling in any way the flow of information, deciding what to give away and what to hold back. The wire tapping needs to be approved by a court at the request of a prosecutor, but the quantity of potential information is so big that the power to truly decide what should be used and what shouldn’t stays with the ones harvesting it – namely, the Intelligence Service. This was partly the case with Elena Udrea, whose 2015 NAD files contain evidence of wire tapping from 2010 or 2011. Place this in the larger context: over 160.000 court permissions to wiretap have been granted to the Intelligence Service in the past decade.

The external dimension

As if the whole picture wasn’t complex enough with the ongoing pace of judicial proceedings and the behind-the-scenes extra-judicial phenomena, a final word must be said about the external implications of Romania’s anticorruption hunt. With the current geopolitical context in Eastern Europe, there’s certainly foreign interest in keeping the country on track with its current obligations – most of all, the Strategic Partnership with the United States. A lot of signals have come in the past two years from American officials and the US Embassy in Bucharest that Washington fully supports the NAD’s activity. The world has seen firsthand in Ukraine what a corrupt system can do to a country. As the line of thinking goes, a corrupt country is easier to be drawn under Russia’s influence. So, even if there’s no direct proof of it, a “green light” has been given to Romanian anticorruption efforts from outside.

Conclusion

This mix of internal and external conditions could ensure that Romania’s political and economical game will restart with a clean sheet. That, at least, is the hope of the average citizen, who has seen 25 years of corruption-driven businesses and policies and is now witnessing for the first time their thunderous fall. Nobody knows, though, if the pendulum swings exactly that way. Given the conditions under which the anticorruption effort is developing, it could also give birth to some monsters as well. At least one could look like a Texas Ranger walking his wide brimmed hat in the corridors of the National Anticorruption Directorate.

Elena Udrea, the former presidential protégé who knows the system like the back of her hand, put it this way in the days prior to her indictment and detention: “Nowadays in Romania who holds the cuffs holds the power”. Though this may not be the case yet, it is certainly true that those cuffed don’t hold the power anymore.

VS_foto

 

Vlad Stoicescu is a Romanian journalist and founding editor of the independent online magazine ”Romania de la Zero” (www.dela0.ro). A former Black Sea Young Reformers fellow, Vlad has won several media awards, including Young Journalist of the Year from Freedom House and Best Reporter from FFFF-Superscrieri, both in 2012. His beats include national politics and Romanian recent history issues (world wars, Holocaust, communism, post-communism).

 

Romania dela zero

 

Katoikos

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