Clare Nuttall in Bucharest -
Romania’s Anti-Corruption Directorate (DNA) has launched criminal proceedings against the former communications minister Gabriel Sandu and property tycoons Dorin Cocos and Nicolae Dumitru, in connection with an ongoing probe into sales of IT equipment to schools. The case has thrown the spotlight onto official corruption in Romania as the country heads for presidential elections in November.
The DNA said in an <a href="http://www.pna.ro/comunicat.xhtml?id=5445">October 28 statement</a> that it has ordered the initiation of criminal proceeding against Cocos and Gheorghe Stefan, mayor of the east Romanian town of Piatra Neamt, on suspicion of trafficking in influence and money laundering. Sandu, who headed the Communications and Information Society Ministry between December 2008 and September 2010, faces bribery and money-laundering charges. In a <a href="http://www.pna.ro/comunicat.xhtml?id=5444">separate statement</a>, the DNA said it had also asked for criminal proceedings against Dumitru for trafficking in influence and money laundering.
Both Cocos and Dumitru were detained for questioning on October 28. Dorin owns stakes in companies including Dalli International, Euro Hotels International and Medcomplex. A close friend of Romania’s outgoing President Traian Basescu, Cocos is the former husband of Elena Udrea, Basescu’s preferred candidate to succeed him as president. Also detained was Nicolae Dumitru, owner of the Niro Group, which includes several high-profile properties in Bucharest.
The investigation - dubbed the <a href="http://www.bne.eu/page/bnecentral-europe-daily-list/romanian-president-a...">“Microsoft case”</a> - concerns the reselling of educational software licences for Romanian schools. According to the DNA, the nine former ministers signed and later extended contracts to license Microsoft software at prices 30% to 40% above the market average. Other computers and software products were bought at 50% above market value. Microsoft has not been implicated in the inquiry.
The DNA said October 28 that detention orders made by prosecutors had showed that contracts for Microsoft licences from April 2004 were concluded on terms that were “onerous for the state budget” as discounts of around 47% given by Microsoft to the Romanian state had been siphoned off by state officials.
The DNA <a href="http://www.pna.ro/comunicat.xhtml?id=5319">said September 26</a> that it had been notified by the prime minister’s control agency of possible discrepancies after investigations at the Ministry for Information Society and to the Ministry of Education. In September it named nine former ministers including Sandu as being under suspicion.
The ministers “practiced [their] office duties in bad faith,” which “made it possible to embezzle the approximately 47% discount given by Microsoft to the Romanian Government, and subsequently allowing the payment of commissions to the people involved,” the DNA said on September 26.
This was followed on October 16 by searches of the homes of several suspects in the case including Sandhu, former presidential advisor Dorin Marian, and Remus Truica, chief of staff of former prime minister Adrian Nastase.
Since three of the ministers involved in that case are currently members of the Romanian parliament, the DNA has appealed to the parliament to vote on lifting their immunity. A similar request has been sent to the European Parliament, where the fourth former minister - Nica Dan - is an MEP.
Past performance has shown that MPs are reluctant to lift immunity for their fellow members. Anti-corruption campaigners say the issue of parliamentary immunity is one of the greatest obstacles to effectively enforcing the country’s anti-corruption laws. On December 10, 2013 – dubbed “Black Tuesday” in Romania – MPs voted to give top politicians including the president and MPs immunity from prosecution in corruption cases. The support from parties across the political spectrum most likely demonstrated MPs’ fear of becoming the subject of future investigations.
The case has thrown the spotlight onto corruption in the run-up to Romania’s November 2 presidential elections. Prime Minister Victor Ponta is the most likely winner, expected to take a victory in the second round run-off on November 16. However, he faces a strong challenge from centre-right candidate Klaus Iohannis, mayor of the provincial city of Sibiu, part of whose campaign has been based on his clean reputation. Recent polls show that Iohannis has gained somewhat on Ponta, though the prime minister is still expected to take 37% of votes in the first round to his rival’s 29%, according to a poll published by CSCI/InfoPolitic on October 20.
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