Clare Nuttall in Bucharest -
Romanian Finance Minister Darius Valcov resigned on March 15 after being targeted in a corruption probe. Prosecutors have launched a criminal investigation into Valcov, who is suspected of accepting around €2mn in bribes between 2010 and 2013.
Prime Minister Victor Ponta announced Valcov’s resignation in an interview with B1 TV on the evening of March 15, after meeting the finance minister earlier in the day. Several potential replacements are being considered, he added.
However, Ponta indicated that Valcov will not be replaced until he has finished work on the new Fiscal Code. The government wants to push the revised code, which will introduce a raft of tax cuts, through parliament as quickly as possible despite criticism from both the opposition and the International Monetary Fund.
Valcov was detained for questioning on March 13, according to a statement from the Romanian National Anticorruption Directorate (DNA). The accusations of influence peddling relate to Valcov’s former position of mayor of Slatina, a position he held from 2008 to 2012 before entering the senate as an MP with the ruling Party of Social Democrats (PSD).
Valcov is accused of favouring a local company for public works contracts, in exchange for a 20% cut of the proceeds. According to the DNA, he received a total of around €2mn. Valcov has denied the accusations.
The new political scandal comes at a time when the government is already under pressure. Since Ponta lost the November 2014 presidential election to centre-right candidate Klaus Iohannis, the ruling coalition has become increasingly shaky. The Democratic Union of Hungarians in Romania (UDMR) defected from the ruling coalition shortly after the election, and it is not clear whether the PSD will manage to hold onto power until the next round of parliamentary elections in 2016.
Valcov has been Romania’s finance minister since the government’s post-election reshuffle in December. He is the latest high-ranking serving Romanian official to be targeted by Romanian prosecutors, who have become increasingly active in recent years.
Chief prosecutor Laura Kovesi said on February 24 that 2014 had been a record year for the DNA, which had seen the largest number of indictments, convictions in the investigated cases, and investigations into high-level public officials. During the year, the DNA asked the parliament to approve the pre-trial detention of nine MPs and submitted 12 requests for approval of criminal investigations into ministers and former ministers.
On February 11, Romania’s High Court of Cassation and Justice approved prosecutors’ request to detain MP and former presidential candidate Elena Udrea in police custody for 30 days. A close ally of former president Traian Basescu, Udrea is being investigated by prosecutors in several corruption cases, including the “Microsoft case”, in which software was sold to schools at above market prices. Several former ministers and other high-ranking officials have also been named in the case. Her ex-husband, businessman Dorin Cocos, is being held in connection to the same case.
Another influential politician, Marian Vanghelie, was also detained in a separate investigation on March 13, along with his girlfriend, MP Oana Niculescu-Mizil. The mayor of Bucharest’s Sector 5 district, Vanghelie was questioned on suspicion of abuse of office, bribery and money laundering and abuse of office. Both Vanghelie and Niculescu-Mizil have denied wrongdoing.
Romania’s government and parliament have previously been accused of attempting to hold back anti-corruption investigations. A low point in the fight against corruption came on December 10, 2013 – dubbed “Black Tuesday” – when MPs voted to give top politicians including the president and MPs immunity from prosecution in corruption cases. MPs have several times voted across party lines to protect their colleagues - most likely from fear of becoming the subject of future investigations themselves. The parliament has also repeatedly intervened in individual cases.
However, there are signs this may be changing. In February, the parliament voted to allow the investigation into Udrea to go ahead. The vote took place the month after the European Commission’s latest report on Romania’s progress under the Co-operation and Verification Mechanism (CVM) singled out the parliament for criticism.
“Decisions in Parliament on whether to allow the prosecution to treat parliamentarians like other citizens still seem to lack objective criteria and a reliable timetable. Parliament has also provided examples of reluctance to apply final court or Constitutional Court decisions,” the report said.
Overall, however, the report was positive on progress made by Romania in tackling corruption. “The action taken by the key judicial and integrity institutions to address high-level corruption has maintained an impressive momentum.” the report says. This has had positive knock-on effects in increase confidence in the judicial system among Romanians, and growing professionalism within the judiciary.
"Romania is on the right course and needs to stick to it. Tackling corruption remains the biggest challenge and the biggest priority,” said EC First Vice-President Timmermans in a statement when the report was released on January 28.
On Transparency International’s 2014 Corruption Perceptions Index, Romania was in 69th place, the same level as Bulgaria, Greece and Italy.
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