By Luiza Ilie
BUCHAREST (Reuters) - Dozens of candidates standing for office in Romania's local elections on Sunday are either already subject to graft investigations or have not been sufficiently screened for any past abuses of power, anti-corruption groups say.
Data compiled by Reuters showed around a third of the some 350 local officials under investigation or sent to trial since 2012 are running -- with many confident of securing office.
Sunday's voting stakes are high, with local administrations having an overall budget of 67 billion lei (11.5 billion pounds) this year -- roughly a third of the country's consolidated budget revenue -- and access to European Union development funds.
Ex-communist Romania, which joined the EU in 2007, has long been dogged by a reputation for high levels of corruption despite efforts by prosecutors to crack down on graft.
Anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International rated it third most corrupt EU country after Bulgaria in Italy in 2015.
The International Monetary Fund last month cited "a high perception that public funds are being diverted and frequent experiences of irregular payments and bribes". An EU report this week mentioned it as one of three hotspots for fraudulent claims on EU funds.
In a country with a population of around 20 million, no fewer than a quarter of a million candidates are vying for some form of public office, ranging from that of big city mayors to small town or county councillors.
Candidates need only sign statements vouching they are entitled to run, confirming that they are at least 23 years old and have not lost their rights to hold public office due to past court convictions or other sanctions.
But observers say their statements cannot be fully verified because local election bureaus by law do not have access to the personal identification numbers of candidates as they register, and so cannot conduct proper searches on them.
This means that people can in theory run who have either been sentenced for graft or previously lost their seats due to conflicts of interest or because they could not account for their wealth under regulations passed at the EU's request.
"I am wondering whether it's anyone's job in this country to check whether the candidates are entitled to run," said Laura Stefan, anti-corruption expert with think tank Expert Forum.
While Expert Forum calculates that roughly 450 people who do not meet the age requirement are running, she says there is not enough access to the data that could show how many candidates fail the anti-corruption criteria.
Records on the past activities of hundreds of thousands of candidates are held in the database of the so-called National Integrity Agency, a body whose specific role is to ensure the probity of public officials.
But the current arrangements leave open which state body will search through its database and match its records with the hundreds and thousands of names on candidate lists.
Contacted by Reuters, the Interior Ministry said by email it was not its role to monitor the statements signed by candidates vouching for their validity to run. It referred questions on the matter to the Central Election Bureau, which did not respond to a request for comment.
"HE ALSO DID GOOD THINGS"
Data compiled by Reuters from lists of candidates publicly available on line and prosecutors' documents between 2012 and the present-day show around 100 of some 350 local officials who have been investigated or sent to trial since 2012 are running in this election.
Many of those under investigation have publicly denied wrongdoing and -- notwithstanding a conviction rate of 92 percent achieved by Romania's DNA anti-graft prosecution unit -- benefit from a presumption of innocence until proven guilty.
While they are officially entitled to run pending final verdicts, the fact they choose to run at all is a sign for some of the reluctant but broad acceptance of corruption in Romanian society.
"Citizens don't have a culture of anti-corruption," said Cristi Danilet, a judge who sits on Romania's judicial watchdog.
"If you ask people why they would choose someone who is corrupt to continue leading them they would answer 'It's true that he stole, but he also did good things'".
The capital Bucharest has seen its city mayor and four out of six district mayors put under investigation or sent to trial for taking bribes and abuse of office in the last year. Two of them are running to win their districts again this year.
In Bucharest's fifth district, the city's poorest, Marian Vanghelie has won four consecutive terms since 2000, his popularity boosted in part by a scheme of welfare vouchers to the poor. He is on trial for taking bribes worth 30 million euros from a business involved in a public works contract, a charge he denies.
"People say the fact that I am running proves I have courage and dignity and that I am not afraid -- which means that I am innocent," Vanghelie told Reuters.
Some of his constituents agree.
"I will vote for Marian Vanghelie because he is a very good man," said 51-year-old pensioner Mariana Stefan. "He did what he promised to do, supported everyone in all our problems."
(Additional reporting by Diana Bitan and Sinisa Dragin)