BUCHAREST (Reuters) - Romania's president said on Friday he had given his approval for prosecutors to open a criminal investigation against five former ministers suspected of money laundering, abuse of office and bribery tied to software licenses for schools.
The anti-corruption prosecutors are also seeking approval from the Romanian and European parliaments to investigate a further four former ministers in the same case. They are still serving lawmakers and so their parliamentary immunity must first be lifted for them to be investigated too.
"From my point of view, the investigation can move forward and any parliamentary delay is damaging," President Traian Basescu said after authorizing the investigation of the five former ministers who no longer hold any state office.
Parliament has yet to vote on whether to lift immunity for the two senators and one member of the lower house also implicated in the case. The other former minister involved now sits in the European Parliament.
The prosecutors have said the nine former ministers signed and subsequently extended contracts to license Microsoft software for use in schools under deals stretching from 2004 to 2009.
The investigators allege that government officials took advantage of a steep, 47 percent discount off the published price of Microsoft software, misappropriating the difference.
The prosecutors have indicated that, while Microsoft products are at the heart of the case, the company has not been implicated. A Microsoft spokeswoman has said the Redmond, Washington-based company was cooperating fully with the inquiry.
Prosecutors have also said there were clues that officials had demanded bribes to use their influence to enable a local arm of Fujitsu Siemens and Romanian firm Siveco to intermediate the licensing deals at higher costs than actual ones.
Local media have quoted the officials concerned as denying any wrongdoing.
The European Union has regularly raised concerns about Romania's failure to tackle rampant high-level graft.
Romania ranks behind only Greece and Bulgaria in terms of corruption in the 28-nation EU, according to Transparency International, and the European Commission has its justice system under special monitoring.
However, anti-corruption prosecutors have earned praise from the EU for their efforts to combat high-level corruption.
(Reporting by Luiza Ilie and Eric Auchard; Editing by Gareth Jones)