Foreign Policy

Romania and when curbing corruption warrants investigation

A terrible traffic accident a year ago in the Romanian capital of Bucharest is back on local front pages currently, having fueled a debate over privilege and political interference.

Early one evening in October 2015, the then-Interior Minister Gabriel Oprea’s car and a police escort sped towards the minister’s home in the Cotroceni neighborhood of western Bucharest. It was raining. The escorts — a police car and a motorcycle cop — drove ahead. Suddenly, the motorcycle hit a large pothole. Tragically, police officer Bogdan Gigina died of brain injuries.

{mosads}Subsequently, Minister Oprea was charged with culpable homicide — the rough equivalent of manslaughter in other jurisdictions. The main basis for the charge was his commandeering an escort — prohibited by Romanian law, a reaction to some of the perks enjoyed under previous Romanian regimes. He was charged by the National Anti-Corruption Directorate (DNA).

Note the name of the agency. Was this a question of corruption?

Romania has been among the most corrupt places in the European Union. Transparency International’s annual Corruption Perceptions Index rated the country 58th most corrupt as of the latest survey, for 2015, and number three among the 28 EU nations, tied with Greece.

Under heavy diplomatic pressure from Washington, the nation has adopted a highly aggressive approach to improving the situation. Earlier this year, U.S. Ambassador Hans Klemm urged Romanian political parties to remove anyone under investigation from their electoral lists. Klemm has been highly supportive of the DNA and its chief prosecutor, Laura Codruta Kovesi. Young, energetic and earnest, Kovesi has developed into a star within the anti-corruption community worldwide.

In fact, under her leadership, the DNA is more popular and trusted than government itself. Polls have indicated that DNA enjoys the trust of 59.8 percent of the Romanian population, compared with 11 percent for the nation’s parliament.

In large part, that is because the entire political establishment of Romania has been targeted. The agency’s activity report for 2015 lists among its convictions a prime minister, five Cabinet ministers, 16 members of Romania’s lower house, five senators, 97 mayors or deputy mayors, 15 presidents or vice-presidents of county councils and 32 directors of national (i.e., state-owned) companies.

Without question, these are impressive results. In 2015, the agency recorded an amazing 90% conviction rate, winning cases against 970 defendants.

But there is a darker side. Amid the welter of statistics generated, there is one that should raise concerns. In 2015, the DNA opened 10,200 files for investigation. By any standard that is a shocking number, all the more so when one considers that many of the targets of these investigations are well-known public officials.

It is now routine for the Romanian media to station camera crews outside the DNA’s headquarters in Bucharest, to capture the day’s perp walks by political celebrities.

This raises some problems.

First, there is enormous potential for scores to be settled and rivalries pursued. What exactly can lead to a file being opened? An anonymous call from a burner phone or a document dropped off in a brown envelope may be all that’s needed, leading to a compromising interrogation which can end a career.

Secondly, there are serious human rights and privacy issues. The Romanian justice system provides for preventive arrest — detention of suspects before they are charged. The most recent figures available indicate that such arrests, involving custody of 30 days or more, rose to 10,473 in 2013 across the whole Romanian justice system. No figures are available for DNA-related detentions, but local critics have accused the directorate of abuse of the system.

The DNA is heavily reliant for its prosecutions on wiretaps and other evidence supplied by the Romanian security and intelligence agencies, including the SRI. The SRI has history. Back in 1996, SRI whistleblower Constantin Bucur leaked evidence that the agency was engaged in a secret and illegal phone-tapping program against politicians, public officials and journalists. With the wholesale abuses of Romania’s Ceausescu era Securitate still fresh in the minds of citizens, this was a huge scandal.

In fact, just days ago, a Bucharest court threw out illegally obtained wiretap and other evidence from the DNA in a bribery claim against Lia Olguța Vasilescu, mayor of the southern city of Craiova.

Finally, the sheer diversity of allegations under investigation is mind-boggling. The DNA is investigating all sorts of crime, from money laundering to tax evasion to petty fraud. One politician is even being accused of driving without a license.

Then there is the former Interior Minister. His case is back in the news because DNA chief Kovesi tried — and failed — to persuade the nation’s upper house to waive Oprea’s parliamentary immunity. That drew protesters to the streets this past weekend and ultimately a promise by Oprea to step down and face his day in court.

But in essence, the case against him concerns a traffic accident, albeit an awful one. And the question remains: Should anti-corruption prosecutors really be investigating this sort of thing?

And here we need to look beyond the cases taken to trial. We also need to consider the cases that do not proceed at all. As a young lawyer in my home country of Venezuela, I encountered police and military intelligence agency blackmail all the time. The victim would be taken in for questioning, shown some evidence of some sort and told the matter could be dropped — for a consideration. That could be evidence against a bigger fish. Or, at least in Venezuela, it could be money.

Now, think about the Romanian numbers: 10,200 files opened in a year, 970 convictions and a 90% conviction rate. This means that just over 10 percent of investigations opened are leading to prosecution. It is necessary to ask, what is happening with the other 90%? Imagine how much discretionary authority this places in the hands of Ms Kovesi’s team of 97 prosecutors, and how large are the margins for error or, worse, abuse.

Official corruption deserves and requires zealous prosecution. But at what point does zeal cross a line and compromise politics in general — that is to say, democracy — instead of crooked politicians?

Robert Carmona-Borjas (@CarmonaBorjas) is a lawyer, academic and Founder of the 501-c social enterprise, the Arcadia Foundation. He has previously been on the faculty of American University in Washington, D.C. and has taught at George Washington University.

The views expressed by authors are their own and not the views of The Hill.


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