Bucharest mayor held while corruption allegations are investigated

By bne IntelliNews September 7, 2015

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Bucharest mayor Sorin Oprescu will be held in police custody for 30 days while charges against him are investigated, a Bucharest court ruled on September 6. Earlier in the day, the Romanian National Anti-Corruption Directorate (DNA) said Oprescu had been detained on suspicion of bribery.

The main political impact of Oprescu’s arrest concerns the local elections scheduled for spring 2017. Though formally independent, the highly popular mayor has constantly maintained ties with the ruling Social Democratic Party (PSD). The charges against Oprescu, however, open up the race for Bucharest city hall, which which has an annual budget of RON4.1bn (€925mn). The position is also politically significant since only Romania’s president needs a larger number of votes in order to win.

The DNA statement says that between 2013 and 2015 Oprescu was allegedly part of a group that took kickbacks on public contracts awarded in the Romanian capital. According to the DNA, contractors kept only 30%-33% of the gross profits for their work, paying the majority back to the group. Prosecutors claim Oprescu personally took 10% of the value of public contracts.

The head of the city hall’s economic department, Mircea Constantinescu, was also arrested early on September 7.

Oprescu was a senator with the PSD until 2008, but quit the party and ran for mayor as an independent in 2008. Due to his close relationship with PSD founder, Ion Iliescu, he retains links to the party and received PSD support against his main rival Vasile Blaga in the second round of the 2008 election. He was re-elected in 2012.

The PSD viewed Oprescu as its man in the past two mayoral elections, even though it fielded rival candidates. Despite rumours that Oprescu could stand down as mayor after his current term, recent statements from interim PSD president Liviu Dragnea indicated that the partnership would remain in place for the 2017 elections.

Following Oprescu’s arrest, the PSD will have only a few months to search for a new candidate, who could face the opposition National Liberal Party (PNL) co-president Alina Gorghiu in the upcoming election.

“[The] PSD has to think seriously about a credible candidate for the city hall of the capital city, and I believe we can do this,” Dragnea said after Oprescu’s arrest, Mediafax reported. According to the latest rumours, the PSD is considering promoting the mayor of Bucharest district 3, Robert Negoita, to candidate for the city hall.

Under recently revised local election procedures, which have been severely criticised by civic organisations, from 2016 mayors will be elected in a single-round voting process. Under these circumstances, Oprescu’s invalidation as a candidate would help the PSD, since left-wing votes will no longer be split between two candidates.

Oprescu’s arrest follows the arrests of several other high-profile Romanian politicians and senior officials in the last two years. The DNA has become increasingly aggressive in investigating politicians - including sitting Prime Minister Victor Ponta.

In June, Ponta was placed under investigation on suspicion of 17 counts of forgery, as well as for money-laundering, conflict of interest and tax evasion. The DNA accused Ponta of forging documents to cover payments of around €40,000 made to him between 2007 and 2008, before he became a government minister.

However, the parliament rejected a request to lift Ponta's immunity so that the prosecution office could open an investigation into an alleged conflict of interest. He also survived a no-confidence vote in parliament on June 12, but later announced that he would stand down as head of the PSD so as not to harm the party.

Another top government official, Finance Minister Darius Valcov, resigned in March after he came under suspicion of accepting €2mn in bribes when he was serving as mayor of Slatina.

Local government officials have also been targeted. Of the six district mayors in Bucharest, two are under investigation - the PNL’s Andrei Chiliman must report weekly to police while corruption charges against him are investigated, while former PSD member Marian Vanghelie is under house arrest. Oprescu’s chief advisor Solomon Wingler was arrested by DNA prosecutors on June 4.

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