By Radu Marinas
BUCHAREST (Reuters) - Romanian Prime Minister Victor Ponta plagiarized much of his doctoral thesis, a panel of Bucharest University academics said on Friday, raising tensions before a referendum on impeaching the country's president, a rival of the premier.
The leftist Ponta denied the accusation, which echoed a finding of another academic panel three weeks ago whose legal authority he then voided, and again said he would not resign.
He has drawn European Union criticism for undermining the rule of law in a campaign by his Social Liberal Union party to impeach President Traian Basescu through a July 29 referendum and tighten its grip on power in the corruption-ridden state.
"Elements of plagiarism were identified in the doctoral thesis of Mr Victor Ponta especially in chapters one and three," said Marian Popescu, president of the ethics commission at Bucharest University, which awarded the doctorate.
"It is our commission's decision that (Ponta's) 2003 doctoral thesis called 'International Criminal Court' at the Bucharest Faculty of Law breaks the ethical, integrity and good conduct principles of the research activity."
Another panel, from Romania's council for certification of titles, diplomas and university certificates, concluded in late June that Ponta copied a large part of the thesis. But he rescinded that council's legal authority, said its finding was politically motivated and he would not resign.
Ponta says only an education ministry panel, which has cleared him of plagiarism, is entitled to judge the case. "This is a political decision," he said of Friday's ruling.
Plagiarism charges have forced several European politicians to quit, including Hungary's president, a German defense minister tipped as a possible successor to Chancellor Angela Merkel, and one of Ponta's nominations as education minister.
Science magazine Nature said last month that more than half of Ponta's Romanian-language thesis, submitted for his doctorate at the University of Bucharest, consisted of duplicated text.
The prime minister has said his only error was to list sources in his bibliography rather than give credit in footnotes and has asked a separate ethics panel to investigate the accusations.
The supervisor of Ponta's doctorate, former Prime Minister Adrian Nastase, started serving a two-year jail sentence this week on a corruption charge.
Ponta has said the plagiarism accusations are part of the political sparring with Basescu.
Asked about whether Ponta's doctorate could be voided, Bucharest University Rector Mircea Dumitru said: "The rector cannot withdraw his diploma. It can do so only after the education ministry gives its approval."
Ponta's government joined forces with parliament earlier this month to suspend Basescu, a conservative, and polls show most Romanians will vote to permanently remove him due to his association with austerity measures and a perception of corruption among his political allies.
But Ponta's government has come under heavy EU pressure to respect the rule of law with Brussels criticizing the way in which it is handling what amounts to a political power struggle.
(Reporting by Sam Cage and Ioana Patran; Editing by Mark Heinrich)