Romania’s fight against corruption enshrined in DNA

Chief prosecutor’s resolute exposure of top-level graft lauded by neighbours and EU

Head of Romania’s National Anti-corruption Directorate (DNA) Laura Codruta Kovesi: For most Romanians, the agency’s work represents a long overdue reckoning with a venal elite that has bled the country dry. Photograph:  Daniel Mihailescu/AFP/Getty

Head of Romania’s National Anti-corruption Directorate (DNA) Laura Codruta Kovesi: For most Romanians, the agency’s work represents a long overdue reckoning with a venal elite that has bled the country dry. Photograph: Daniel Mihailescu/AFP/Getty

 

Camera crews and journalists do not gather each morning outside a certain Bucharest building to wait for anyone in particular, but because headline news has a habit of walking through its door.

“They are here each day to see who comes in and out,” says Laura Codruta Kovesi, chief prosecutor of Romania’s National Anti-corruption Directorate.

“We don’t tell them who is coming. But most days they say they are lucky,” adds Livia Saplacan, spokeswoman for an agency known by its initials DNA.

Last year the agency indicted five government ministers, 21 parliamentary deputies and senators, and more than 100 local mayors and heads of county councils; filed charges relating to more than €430 million in alleged bribes, and ordered the seizure of assets worth almost €500 million.

At the apex of this this pyramid of prosecutions sat Romania’s then premier, Victor Ponta, who in September 2015 was accused of forgery, money-laundering and tax evasion; he resigned two months later and a caretaker cabinet subsequently guided the country towards Sunday’s parliamentary elections.

For most Romanians, the DNA’s work represents a long overdue reckoning with a venal elite that has bled the country dry, while many of those caught in the agency’s crosshairs see it as a weapon for settling political scores.

In a region bedevilled by graft and impunity the directorate’s success is startling, however, and the expertise of Codruta Kovesi and her colleagues is being sought by Romania’s neighbours as they try to replicate its recent achievements.

‘Imagining facts’

Ponta railed against the DNA when he was indicted, saying Romania’s only problem was “the obsession of a totally unprofessional prosecutor trying to make a name by inventing and imagining facts and untrue situations from 10 years ago”.

It was the kind of attack that Codruta Kovesi (43) has grown used to, in a country where politicians, businessmen and media are closely – and profitably – intertwined.

“We are seeing stronger attacks against us by politicians who are not happy with our work, and try to change legislation and our jurisdiction . . . to remove certain people – like deputies – from criminal liability,” the chief prosecutor says.

“Many people who are investigated by us or convicted in our cases make accusations against us in public and in the media,” she adds.

“But at the same time Romanians’ trust in the DNA is around 55 per cent – much higher than in other state institutions.”

It has recently become clear how far some wealthy people will go to damage the agency.

Last month, a Bucharest court convicted an Israeli employee of a private intelligence firm called Black Cube of harassment and intimidation, in an apparent plot to gather compromising material on Codruta Kovesi.

Another Israeli has pleaded guilty to similar charges and a third fled Romania when the net closed around Black Cube, which markets itself as “a select group of veterans from the Israeli elite intelligence units”.

The plan targeting Codruta Kovesi was allegedly part of a £900,000 contract with Black Cube signed by Daniel Dragomir, a former anti-terrorism officer in Romania’s domestic intelligence agency who was indicted for bribery by the DNA.

“The value of this contract and the methods used show that it couldn’t have been some poor Romanian person behind it,” Codruta Kovesi says.

“For sure, the people behind the middle man [Dragomir] are very rich people who are under investigation by the DNA, and whose goal is for the DNA to become a scared, useless institution. Fortunately, they did not succeed.”

Unholy alliance

People indicted by the DNA still fill seats in Romania’s parliament and rank among the country’s richest people, fuelling fears that an unholy alliance of money and power could ultimately emasculate the agency.

The Social Democratic Party (PSD) are expected to win Sunday’s election, despite being the party of Ponta and Adrian Nastase, another former premier who was jailed twice earlier this decade for corruption offences.

PSD members have accused the agency of conducting a witch-hunt, even though it has indicted people from across the political spectrum, including the brother and close allies of former Romanian president and PSD foe Traian Basescu.

“In theory the elections shouldn’t affect us in any way,” Codruta Kovesi says.

“But . . . as long as people who have been investigated by us or convicted in our cases keep their same jobs and positions, and could influence the legislative process, then danger exists.”

“This year draft laws appeared proposing changes to our jurisdiction. They have not been thrown out, but just put to one side,” she says.

“The DNA is an elite structure in Romania’s justice system, but to remain like that it must continue to enjoy independence and stability in the legal framework. If tomorrow we are no longer allowed to investigate certain crimes or certain people, or the DNA is re-organised, then of course its efficiency will be affected.”

Expertise

The agency has been lauded by the European Union, and shares its expertise with colleagues across the region from Ukraine to Macedonia, who are locked in their own battles with top-level corruption.

Codruta Kovesi says she does not regret pursuing a potential career as a basketball player, and calls being a prosecutor “the most beautiful and greatest job I could have chosen”.

This year she received her latest international award – the French Legion of Honour – and was granted a second three-year term as the head of the DNA, which handled more than 10,000 cases in 2015 and enjoyed a 90 per cent conviction rate.

“When I finish here I will continue to work in the judicial system,” she says, before adding with a smile: “And I want to make one thing clear – I have no intention of going into politics.”

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