Deputy head of Romanian intelligence service resigns amid political scandal

Deputy head of Romanian intelligence service resigns amid political scandal
By Iulian Ernst in Bucharest January 18, 2017

The executive head of the Romanian intelligence service (SRI), Florian Coldea, was forced to step down on January 17, and the head of the National Anticorruption Directorate (DNA) Laura Codruta Kovesi came under pressure following a chain of public testimonies released by fugitive businessman Sebastian Ghita.

Ghita claims that security services from Romania’s “partner countries” - most likely a veiled reference to the CIA - were involved in the shaping of the DNA, in partnership with the SRI. While these are as yet unproven, the unfolding political scandal could provide a pretext for Romania’s new centre-left government to tame anticorruption efforts by prosecutors.

Ghita claimed in one of his taped testimonies that both Coldea and Kovesi were propelled in their careers by “foreign secret services”, even accusing them of being “agents”. In a previous episode, he said that Coldea had forced his friend former Prime Minister Viktor Ponta to appoint Kovesi as head of the DNA.

The allegations expressed by Ghita in his eight (so far) public taped statements give the impression of exaggeration and speculations, but they also include evidence that indicates relationships between the actors and requires proper explanations.

If Ghita does reveal credible evidence of the alleged collaboration between Coldea and Kovesi and CIA officers in the region - which he claims to hold - the DNA's credibility would be compromised despite its visible results and the broad public support it enjoyed during its first years of activity.

Following Coldea’s resignation, the pressure has shifted towards Kovesi. Ghita has also promised to reveal evidence of her involvement in political scandals. This too could be used by the government, which has repeatedly accused the DNA and Kovesi of political bias.

In an interview with B1TV after Coldea's resignation on January 17, Kovesi defended herself and blamed the police for helping Ghita escape. 

"I will not resign,” Kovesi told the broadcaster - a statement indicating that this option has become a plausible scenario.

The DNA head also said that she was not and is not acquainted with the fugitive businessman, who had implied a relationship between the two in the past, and she said that she met Ghita only at “events organised by institutions”. Ghita claims he is in possession of sound evidence proving their relationship and the rest of his statements.

Ghita was being investigated by the DNA in connection to several corruption scandals, including one involving Ponta. However, he escaped from police surveillance on December 21 and his escape was only reported 16 hours later. An international arrest warrant was not issued until January 10. 

The developments took place shortly after the coalition of the Social Democratic Party (PSD) and the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats (ALDE) came to power after the December 11 election. Members of the new government have openly criticised the DNA and blamed the SRI for the support it has provided to anticorruption prosecutors. Criticisms of the DNA by the heads of the two ruling parties seem to be at least partly motivated by revenge - both ALDE head Calin Popescu Tariceanu and PSD head Liviu Dragnea were the subjects of DNA investigations. However, together with the accusations made by Ghita they also reveal insufficient transparency and public monitoring of the secret services in Romania. 

Nonetheless, dismantling the DNA or placing it under political control would be a major setback in the judicial reforms carried out by the country under the European Union’s Cooperation and Verification Mechanism (CVM).

There is also some confusion surrounding the circumstances of Coldea’s resignation and his relationship with the head of the SRI, Eduard Hellvig. 

On January 17, Hellvig accepted Coldea’s resignation, and announced it in a press release, where he also said that the deputy head of the service had not breached any regulations.

Coldea, who had acted for years as executive head of the SRI, decided to step down from his position after his 12-year career within the agency, but not necessarily to leave the intelligence service, according to the somewhat ambiguous press release. There has been speculation that his resignation, apparently followed by his dismissal, indicates possible tensions between the two top SRI officials. President Klaus Iohannis has already signed the decree on Coldea’s retirement.