Clare Nuttall in Bucharest -
Romanian President Traian Basescu has given his support to an investigation into former ministers who are suspected of siphoning off funds when buying software for schools. The investigation is being held back by rules giving immunity to parliament members, since four of the nine minsters under suspicion are serving MPs.
Romania's outgoing president said October 3 that he had given his approval for prosecutors to open a criminal investigation against five former ministers suspected in the case.
“I think this case should be investigated as quickly as possible to its conclusion,” Basescu said in a <a href="http://www.presidency.ro/?_RID=det&tb=date&id=15255&_PRID=lazi">statement</a> on the presidential website. “[F]rom my point of view the investigation can continue, and I think any delay is harmful to the credibility of Parliament.”
Since the remaining four under suspicion are serving MPs, Romania’s National Anti-Corruption Directorate (DNA) would have to convince fellow MPs to lift their parliamentary immunity for the case to go ahead.
The case 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 <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.
“Thus, there are evidences leading to the fact that Ministers Nica Dan, Mihailescu Petru Serban, Adriana Ţicau, Athanasiu Alexandru, Tanasescu Mihai Nicolae and Gabriel Sandu practiced [their] office duties in bad faith,” the statement said. This “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.”
According to Romanian prosecutors, officials may also have demanded bribes from the Romanian division of Fujitsu Siemens and Bucharest-based Siveco. In a separate investigation, also concerning the IT sector, the DNA is looking into the purchases of school computer labs from Siveco, which has received dozens of contracts from state institutions.
Since three of the ministers involved in that case are currently members of the Romanian parliament, the DNA has appealed to the Romanian 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.
However, the Romanian parliament does not have a good record in this area, and despite the endorsement from Basescu, MPs may be 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; at the time of the vote, 28 MPs were either on trial for corruption or had already been convicted. The parliament has also repeatedly intervened in individual cases.
In a joint letter on June 7, five NGOs and think-tanks appealed to the parliament to stop obstructing the judicial process, writing that, “This attitude undermines the rule of law and it is placing us outside of the Western civilization.”
The scandal has broken just weeks before Romanians go to the polls to elect a new president. Basescu, having served two consecutive terms, is not eligible to stand. The most likely winner is Prime Minister Victor Ponta, though polls indicate that support for Klaus Iohannis, the candidate for the centre-right Christian Liberal Alliance, will force a run-off between the two in the second round of voting.
In the last decade, Romania has seen a steady increase in the number of convictions for corruption-related crimes and the severity of jail sentences. Former PM Adrian Nastase was first convicted in 2012 of siphoning off $2m in state funds to finance his election campaign, then returned to jail the following year for accepting bribes. In 2013, Transport Minister Relu Fenechiu became the first serving minister to be sentenced for corruption, and in June Basescu’s brother was also arrested on corruption charges. In 2013, more than 1,000 defendants were indicted including six ministers and MPs, 34 mayors and deputy mayors, 25 magistrates and 10 managers of national companies, according to the DNA.
Despite these efforts, the level of corruption in Romania remains high by European standards. A European Commission study published in February found that corruption costs European countries a total of around €120bn a year, with the highest levels of bribery found in Bulgaria, Greece and Romania. The Romanian population is also showing growing impatience with corrupt officials; throughout the recent crisis mass demonstrations were organised against corruption alongside austerity cuts and unemployment.
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