Romanian premier targeted in corruption probe keeps immunity

AP News
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Posted: Jun 09, 2015 1:46 PM
Romanian premier targeted in corruption probe keeps immunity

BUCHAREST, Romania (AP) — Hard-charging Romanian prosecutors bumped up against the parliament they accuse of corruption on Tuesday when lawmakers refused to lift the immunity of Prime Minister Victor Ponta, named last week as a suspect in a criminal investigation that includes money laundering and being an accomplice to tax evasion.

Ponta has denied the charges, which stem from his time as a lawmaker, and likened calls for his resignation to an attempted coup.

The charges are part of a wave of recent prosecutions of rich and powerful Romanians that has unearthed a culture of widespread corruption entrenched in the country's public administration — a system infiltrated with bribes, fraud, forgery and conflict of interest that has enabled public servants to become multimillionaires.

"It is a sad day for Romanian democracy," President Klaus Iohannis said after lawmakers voted 231-120 to allow Ponta to keep his immunity. The president has been urging the prime minister to resign, something that Ponta has refused to do.

"Mr. Ponta sacrificed the interest of Romania for his own interests," Iohannis said.

The government is also expected to survive a confidence vote over the matter later in the week, considering Ponta's Social Democratic Party and smaller allied parties have a majority in Parliament.

Still, some of Ponta's opponents said they believe he will have to pay for his alleged wrongdoing.

"The story is not over today. It's hardly begun," said Ludovic Orban, a lawmaker with the opposition Liberal Party. "Tuesday's vote is the fuse that will ignite the reaction of democracy against Victor Ponta."

The anti-corruption drive that has ensnared Ponta is being driven by Laura Kovesi, chief anti-corruption prosecutor, and other young prosecutors determined to clean up the corruption that has been rife in Romania since the communist era. They have an impressive record of 1,051 convictions last year, up from 743 the year before, and even more are expected this year.

Among those convicted since January 2014 are a former prime minister, seven former ministers, a former deputy prime minister, four lawmakers, one European Parliament lawmaker, 39 mayors, 25 magistrates and two business tycoons.

The country's underground economy was worth an estimated $45 billion in 2013, according to global management consulting company A T Keaney.

Amid the recent anti-corruption drive, cases of lavish living by politicians have also come to light.

Romanians were particularly fascinated by the wealth of former Finance Minister Darius Valcov, once a small-town mayor who was charged with taking 2 million euros ($2.1 million) in bribes. According to prosecutors, he had stashed a painting by impressionist artist Auguste Renoir, sketches by Andy Warhol, three kilograms (6.6 pounds) of gold and $410,000 in cash in a friend's safe from 2011.

Valcov resigned in March amid the scandal, a move Ponta said he lamented.

The accusations against Ponta include forging expense claims worth at least 181,000 lei ($45,000) from the law firm of political ally Dan Sova. Prosecutors say he pretended he did work as a lawyer to justify getting money from the law firm, that were used to pay for two luxury apartments and the use of an SUV vehicle.

The prime minister reiterated Tuesday that he has not done anything wrong and justified his refusal to resign by saying Romania needs "stability and continuity."

"Until last week Romania had the most successful economy in the region and was the most stable country. Now we can become as unstable as our neighbors. I want to put an end to this week of instability," Ponta said.

He also downplayed the accusations against him, saying the charges were old, the damage was worth just 10,000 euros ($11,200) and involved a contract between two private companies of which one was run by Sova.

As prime minister, Ponta appointed Sova as a minister three times, which has also led to accusations of a conflict of interest.

Several Western governments — which have long voiced concern over corruption in Romania — criticized Parliament's decision Tuesday.

"Parliamentary immunity should not be used to block judicial procedures," the U.S. embassy said, adding "allegations of wrongdoing by government officials should be fully investigated without interference."

The Dutch embassy said the vote raised "broader issues about the attitudes toward justice and corruption."

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Vanessa Gera in Warsaw, Poland also contributed to this report.