By Sam Cage
GALATI, Romania (Reuters) - The shakedowns at the Albita border checkpoint were by all accounts organized, routine and highly lucrative and sanctioned by the boss.
Each guard at the Romanian crossing with Moldova took up to 1,000 lei ($332) per shift, against an average monthly wage of just 1,426 lei, for turning a blind eye to cigarette smuggling or incorrect documents, anti-graft prosecutors said.
"The acts of corruption were not individually committed, but on the basis of a previous understanding between all participants," the prosecutors' office said after charging 40 Albita border guards last month.
"The amounts of money were regularly collected by the foremen and distributed at the end of the duty shift, an activity known and tolerated by the chief ..."
As Romania continues to be rebuffed in its efforts to join the European Union's passport-free Schengen zone, the problem of corruption has risen higher on the country's list of priorities.
But the fact remains that four years after joining the bloc, Romania has yet to convict a top official or minister, and in December France and Germany objected to its joining Schengen.
TOP LEVEL CORRUPTION
Graft, red tape and unwieldy judicial systems in Romania and neighbor Bulgaria are a major turn-off for investors worried about contracts and property rules. Bribing poorly-paid doctors or clerks to expedite services is a common practice.
Bulgaria and Romania are still the group's two poorest members and along with Greece rank as the worst three in terms of corruption.
"Romania was let in (to the EU) on the promise we would change from systemic corruption and Schengen is the last lever -- when this is gone, nothing else will be left," said Alina Mungiu-Pippidi of think tank Romanian Academic Society (SAR).
"You need customs officers to resist, you need to balance better the cost-benefit analysis. We pay them 200 euros ($279) per month, less than what one person gives them as bribe.
Romania has yet to enforce new criminal and civil proceeding codes to smooth prosecution and speed up court decisions.
Graft is the main reason Romania has used less than 10 percent of 20 billion euros in EU funds for improving outdated infrastructure, health and education systems, which require transparent and feasible plans and spending, analysts said.
Legislation has to be improved to cover insider dealings as well as simple bribery and new political challengers are needed as all main current parties have proved unwilling to address the situation, SAR said.
"Prosecutors have political will, but parties and the government do not," Mungiu-Pippidi said.
Romania insists it has met requirements for joining Schengen and say investigations of border officials, including sacking the customs chief show it is serious about rooting out graft.
"It does start to give a signal and should be welcomed wholeheartedly with the proviso that the media follows up and ensures that they go after those higher up as well," said Guy Burrow, partner at consultancy Candole in Bucharest.
"The spat is for the respective Franco-German domestic audiences, which is not to say there is not much more work to be done on the justice systems in Romania and Bulgaria."
On the Moldova border at Galati, south of Albita, officials how off recently installed infra-red and motion sensors and video surveillance, but prefer not to discuss graft.
"All our personnel were very closely verified on every occasion, every month, so we could enter Schengen," said Laurentiu Sandu, commander of a border patrol ship on the Danube. "We are a little bit disappointed because it was postponed, but the equipment is here."
At nearby Giurgiulesti crossing, guards search a trickle of cars and trucks for smuggled cigarettes and alcohol, which are considerably cheaper in Moldova, and illegal immigrants.
"From our point of view I can say we are ready to deal with Schengen requirements," said border post chief George Olaru.