Just after lunch on a Wednesday in September, several grey-haired men arrive at the weightiest Court of Appeal in the Romanian capital. One of them is wearing a dark blue suit and is carrying a leather portfolio under his arm. He walks quickly to avoid the reporters gathered outside the Supreme Court.
“No comment,” he says briefly to Expressen and the other journalists waiting for him outside.
The first floor courtroom is full to bursting point. For several of the accused it’s standing room only beside their lawyers. According to DNA documents, there are seventeen suspects in this case – a case of corruption crimes relating to a decision to return a government-controlled forest in Bacau – worth about SEK 2.8 billion – to its rightful owners.
The man in the blue suit is Viorel Hrebenciuc, 62, formerly one of the most powerful representatives of the Romanian Social Democratic Party, PSD. He is described as the Romanian equivalent of “House of Cards” character Frank Underwood (Francis Urquhart in the original UK version), i.e. powerful behind the scenes of parliament, a politically skilled operator and viewed as impossible to topple.
Yet another top Romanian politician had been caught in the corruption prosecutors' net.
But the house of cards collapsed once Hrebenciuc left his position as MP in October 2014. At which point DNA had come a long way in its investigation of the covert business deals and begun to suspect that he was trying to profit from the Bacau forest decision. He was also unaware that his phones were being tapped – and that the secret code he was using had been cracked, according to The Romania Journal.
A few days later the Romanian media were able to report his arrest.
Yet another top Romanian politician had been caught in the corruption prosecutors’ net.
Romania has long had a tarnished reputation as one of the most corrupt countries in Europe. Scheming and bribery have remained part of the culture, long after the fall of Communist dictator Ceausescu 26 years ago. Every year, when Transparency International presents its corruption index, Romania is always at the bottom of the list of EU countries.
One of the conditions for entry into the EU in 2007 was in fact eradication of the widespread corruption in Romania. The requirements included passing new laws and setting up new legal bodies. The European Commission has subsequently had this member state under special observation, as a way of putting pressure on the country’s leaders.
The country’s anti-corruption agency (Directia Nationala Anticoruptie, DNA) has played a vital role in the battle against corruption and scheming. When the agency was set up in 2002, the corruption prosecutors tended to target government employees, for example police officers, teachers or train drivers. The most corrupt people in power were able to carry on with their bribery and scheming unhindered. But things have changed in recent years, partly because the agency has obtained more knowledge and received valuable help with phone tapping from Romania’s security service.
"I work for my country. We have a responsibility and duties that are clearly stated in the law and the Romanian constitution," says Laura Codruta Kovesi, Chief Prosecutor at anti-corruption agency DNA. Laura Codruta Kovesi, Chief Prosecutor at anti-corruption agency DNA.
According to The Economist, a total of 1,138 people were convicted on charges of corruption in 2014, this included five MPs, two former Ministers and a former Prime Minister. Those convicted also included 24 Mayors, who are usually extremely powerful as they control much of the country’s finances.
"We're not all thieves and hooligans."
Bucharest’s latest Mayor was arrested in September, just after he had commented on the notion that all local government officials were pocketing taxes. In a television interview, Sorin Oprescu, 62, the Mayor of Bucharest and one of Romania’s most powerful Mayors, told journalist Ioana Raduca:
“We are not all thieves and hooligans.”
A few hours later, a Police task force escorted him out of his home in the village of Ciolpani, north of Bucharest – in handcuffs. DNA’s suspicions: having siphoned 10% of the profits from the city’s business deals into his own pocket.
The court case against Oprescu means that he is now under house arrest. He maintains that the accusations are unsubstantiated.
The question is whether the prosecutors doubt they have enough evidence.
90% of the people who have already been prosecuted were convicted in court.
This has boosted DNA’s confidence.
"No-one knows when this will end. It might go on forever."
Permanently parked on the pavement outside the entrance to the offices of the anti-corruption agency are several Romanian TV channel vehicles. A few female reporters are eating lunch on a bench, between live reports. Ovidiou Oanta, news reporter for the Pro-TV channel, is sitting in a dark blue Skoda, smoking, with the window wound down in the heat. He and his colleagues are always ready. It is not uncommon for one of the country’s high-level officials to be called in for questioning in this former army building on Stirbei Voda.
“I’ve been sitting out here for years. Some of us are here all the time. Perhaps we should move the whole television channel here. Corruption is a long-term and constant item of news here in Romania. Who will be charged and what will they say in their defence?” he says.
How long will you be here?
“No one knows when this will end. It might go on forever.”
They say that the head of DNA is feared by the political elite. Would you say that is true?
“Yes, that’s true. This is a major clean-up operation and everyone in power is a potential target. Many of them are afraid of the Chief Prosecutor. That makes sense – she knows what she is doing. There’s no doubt that she’s one of Romania’s most powerful women and the general public have a lot of faith in her,” says Ovidiou Oanta.
The allegedly fearsome Chief Prosecutor Laura Codruta Kovesi meets with us in her large first floor office, which is decorated with photographs, paintings and religious icons. Hanging on the wall facing the inner courtyard is a photograph of a meeting with former US President George W Bush in 2009. On the other side of the room is a framed children’s drawing. Her niece has depicted her aunt as a scarecrow with black birds flying towards the sky.
“That’s how she sees me,” says Codruta Kovesi.
Laura Codruta Kovesi scoffs at the question of whether she is feared as much as people say she is.
“I don’t agree that I’m the most feared or the most powerful woman in the country. What I am doing is leading a very strong, efficient and serious institution that has a number of very brave prosecutors who are combating this phenomenon. I think that our professionalism and correct behaviour are our best weapons,” she says.
"We have a responsibility and duties that are clearly stated in the law and the Romanian constitution. We work for the country and its citizens.”
Codruta Kovesi was appointed as head of DNA in May 2013, after previously having been Romania’s youngest Chief Public Prosecutor. But the head of DNA is also known for her background as a professional basketball player. She was appointed by the then President Traian Basescu. However, one of his political opponents – the recently resigned Prime Minister Victor Ponta – has claimed that it was his suggestion to give her the job.
Despite just two years in the job, Codruta Kovesi has made a name for herself as the greatest enemy of Romanian corruption. Several international newspapers and television channels are on her Press Secretary’s list of interview requests. Codruta Kovesi has had to get used to constant attacks and tough criticism in the Romanian media. Often from people who are being investigated by the agency, she emphasises. Television channel Antena 3 compared her to Hitler and Stalin, according to the New York Times. But one of the most common critical remarks relates to theories that she has a hidden political agenda.
Who do you work for?
“For my country. We have a responsibility and duties that are clearly stated in the law and the Romanian constitution. We work for the country and its citizens,” says Codruta Kovesi.
What do you think about the accusations that you have a political agenda?
“We aren’t examining political documents. But if the people we’re investigating hold a particular position, that’s of interest to us. We’re interested in people who are in positions of power or important representatives of an institution. Whether or not they’re politicians isn’t relevant on its own. We’ve investigated politicians from all parties, from the governing party and the opposition alike. So whatever their wealth, position, political values... if the crimes are under our jurisdiction, we investigate them.”
"There are plenty of politicians who don't love us."
Would you consider a political career yourself?
“No. I’ve already commented on that. There have been rumours that I intend to become the President of Romania. But no, that’s not on my agenda. I don’t want that. When I’m done here, I want to continue to work in law.”
Do you have a lot of enemies?
“I don’t know. There are plenty of politicians who don’t love us. That’s obvious. But that doesn’t matter because we get appreciation and support from the public, the Romanian citizens. 66% of the population trust us and that’s the highest figure for any institution, apart from the church and the military.”
Is it a dangerous job?
“We have security here in the building that’s comparable with that of other agencies. It’s true that we must have physical protection – there are witnesses whose identities we need to protect and there are proceedings in which people could get violent.”
The Chief Prosecutor talks proudly about the results she and her colleagues have achieved in recent years. But while there is less corruption in Romania, it is still very much an integral part of the country’s power culture. Laura Codruta Kovesi shakes her head and says it is inexplicable how certain high-level officials still believe they can get away with accepting bribes.
“We aren’t throwing a spanner in the works of their careers. They’re destroying their own careers by committing these crimes,” says Codruta Kovesi.
”As the head of a legal institution I cannot think from the heart. I have to be impartial and balanced.”
Are there any more high-level officials being investigated at the moment, who might be arrested soon?
“Yes, of course.”
Who is next?
“You understand that I can’t tell you that.”
Romania has been criticised because EU funds are not reaching the people who need them, people suffering from poverty, for example. Is that something that makes you angry?
“As the head of a legal institution I cannot think from the heart. I have to be impartial and balanced. The crimes that have been committed involving EU funds, these crimes are on our desk and are a priority issue for DNA. The number of investigations about these cases has increased.”
If Romania hadn’t joined the EU, would corruption still have been as widespread?
“I’m convinced it would.”
The Chief Prosecutor says that it is not unusual for the high-level officials who are being investigated to turn up unexpectedly to attempt to explain themselves. One of the most recent top politicians to have DNA after him appeared without an appointment the day before our interview. He wanted to hand over a document and talk to the prosecutor handling the case, but he was turned away.
The suspect who didn’t make it past the front door was the Prime Minister of Romania.
The Romanian Prime Minister up until November this year, Victor Ponta, 43, has – according to the New York Times – claimed in interviews that he was the one who put Laura Codruta Kovesi forward for the top job at DNA. Earlier this year he himself became the subject of one of her investigations.
According to the accusations from DNA, which were formally submitted in September, Ponta was allegedly guilty of fraud, money laundering and being an accessory to tax evasion in 2007 and 2008, while he was working as a lawyer. President Klaus Iohannis then demanded his resignation, claiming that the suspicions against Ponta could damage Romania’s reputation.
“In my view, the situation is more and more problematic for the Prime Minister, for the government and for the Social Democratic Party. But we must admit that Romania’s image has the most to suffer from this issue,” the President said in a statement in September, according to new agency Reuters.
But the charges only led to Ponta leaving his position as Head of the Social Democratic Party. He was not willing to resign as Prime Minister.
“The only problem the country has is an obsessed and completely unprofessional prosecutor who is trying to make a name for herself by inventing facts and lies from ten years ago,” Ponta wrote on his Facebook page when the charges were brought against him.
On 4 November this year, Ponta’s time in power came to an end. Following a nightclub fire in Bucharest which killed 60 people, he was forced to resign and take his government with him. People took to the streets, protesting that the government was incapable of upholding safety. But their anger was also about the allegations of corruption.
“I hope that the government’s departure will make the people who took to the streets feel satisfied,” said Ponta afterwards.
The former top politician had attempted to shoot himself in the neck. He survived the suicide attempt and was taken to hospital.
Ponta was the country’s first incumbent Prime Minister to be prosecuted and taken to court. He has claimed that the investigation was politically motivated – the same explanation given by his political mentor and predecessor.
Adrian Nastase, 65, Romania’s Prime Minister from 2000 and 2004, was prosecuted after roughly SEK 15 million from the national budget disappeared and was used to finance his presidential election campaign. In 2012 he was sentenced to two years’ imprisonment and was, at that point, the highest ranking politician to have been convicted on charges of corruption since the fall of Communism in 1989.
Drama ensued after the verdict, when the police were due to escort him to prison from his home.
News agency AP quoted the Romanian media, including Antena 3 and Mediafax, reporting that the former top politician had attempted to shoot himself in the neck. He survived the suicide attempt and was taken to hospital.
When Expressen contacted Nastase, just over three years after his suicide attempt, he said:
“I have no interest in talking about that any more. I hope we can talk about something other than that.”
"I did a lot of important things too, such as the work I did with Göran Persson to reduce Romania's debts to Sweden.”
Nastase was released early, in March 2013, writing in his blog that he was happy to return to his friends and family. But his period of liberty was brief. In 2014 he was sentenced to prison again – for crimes including bribery and blackmail.
Today he is once more outside the prison walls and says:
“I have lost so many years having to explain myself. I did a lot of important things too, such as the work I did with Göran Persson to reduce Romania’s debts to Sweden. Then all this started ten years ago. It’s a witch hunt. It created an atmosphere that had very negative effects for me and for society too. But now I think that time has passed and I would rather not remind myself about this anymore,” he says before the conversation comes to an end.
Judges at the Supreme Court in Bucharest manage to take down several corruption suspects just in the few days Expressen is visiting. Former top politician Viorel Hrebenciuc is not the only political celebrity in the dock.
One of the first to arrive at court the next morning is Romania’s former Minister of Interior and Administrative Reform, Cristian David, 47. He too passes the media without saying a word, quickly gets through the security checks and hides at the front of the court room. In front of the judge, his celebrity status is irrelevant and the judge asks for his identification documents.
”It's lucky that DNA doesn't have a museum with waxworks of all the suspects.”
According to DNA, the former Minister of Interior is suspected of having accepted €500,000 for using his influence in the transfer of 15 hectares of land in the town of Buzau. The court petition states that DNA’s evidence is partly based on information from the security services. In the preliminary hearing, David’s lawyer attacks the evidence, claiming that it has not been confirmed that the former Minister actually asked for the money. The cash was alleged to have been handed over in an envelope to his workplace as well as a briefcase full of money.
“It’s lucky that DNA doesn’t have a museum with waxworks of all the suspects. If it did, people would come and look at these people without realising that they’re being fooled by DNA,” says his lawyer, Cristi Durgheu, in court.
Outside Laura Codruta Kovesi’s office, one of her assistants hands over a document of statistics. It is a summary of the corruption investigations carried out over the past year. It states that 167 cases, with a total of 631 defendants, went to court in the first six months of the year. The suspects include seven MPs, several former Ministers, five Judges and one Chief Prosecutor.
"But I am sure that there's corruption in all countries. Corruption is everywhere. Not just in Romania."
The work of the head of the anti-corruption agency – cleaning up the corridors of power – is far from over.
“I’m convinced that we’re not at the end of the road yet,” says Codruta Kovesi, continuing:
“But I am sure that there’s corruption in all countries. Corruption is everywhere. Not just in Romania.”
Sources: BBC, The Economist, Romania Journal, Antena 3, Romania Insider, New York Times, Reuters.