The Untouchables

Romanian Prime Minister Victor Ponta is being investigated for corruption, and the country may soon find itself searching for a replacement. Eva Konzett details the alleged cronyism, cars, fantasy highways, and conflicts of interest involved.

This time the problem will not be solved with a plane ticket to Washington. Nor with solemn assertions, nor futile excuses. Romanian Prime Minister Victor Ponta will not be able to resolve his current political troubles by the same means he has used in the past.

One of his best friends has accomplished what his political adversaries have long failed to do.

As the matter now stands, Social Democrat Dan Sova, born in 1973 in the Romanian capital of Bucharest, will finally be serving Victor Ponta’s head on the political table. Romania may soon be in the position of searching for a new prime minister. Otherwise, trench warfare will develop in Bucharest between the government and the president that will absorb the country’s political energy, as happened in the summer of 2012. One thing is for certain: halcyon days are not to be expected anytime soon in Romania.

Friday morning, the Romanian anti-corruption body, Direcţia Naţională Anticorupţie or DNA, launched a criminal investigation against Prime Minister Ponta, a lawyer by profession. The allegations include money laundering, forgery, tax evasion, and a conflict of interest in the exercise of political power. The first irregularities date back to 2007, when Sova and Ponta agreed to collaborate on legal services for Sova’s law firm. This agreement would have provided Ponta with a princely monthly sum. Any visible trace of Ponta’s work for Sova’s firm, however, cannot be found by the authorities.

The conflict of interest results from the fact that Ponta seems to have rewarded his friend with high posts in the government. Eventually, Sova was even granted a ministerial seat. Despite the fact that Ponta frequently changed his cabinet, he always retained Sova in a privileged position until as recently as December.

When Ponta became minister in December, 2008, Sova had been writing him checks totaling 180,000 lei for his legal advice. But according to the DNA, no advice was ever provided. When their lucrative, if theoretical, collaboration was about to be discovered by a tax audit in 2011, Sova and Ponta allegedly faked bills for legal services never rendered. Furthermore, Ponta freely used a Mitsubishi Lancer at Sova’s expense.

And Ponta did not hesitate to return the favor. In August 2012 Sova was appointed Minister for Relations with the Parliament; six months later he became Minister for Infrastructure Projects and Foreign Investment. In February, 2014 Ponta named him Interim Minister for Transport, which he took over fully a month later. In this last position, Sova showed talent in disrupting Romania’s long-term highway strategy on which the nation’s process of modernization in large part depends. Sova wanted to build fantasy highways in the under-populated regions in the south of the country, far from where they would most be needed. His highway plans would have benefited only certain local politicians whose support was crucial for Ponta.

It is alleged that Ponta received, in total, 250.000 Lei (56.000 € at the current exchange rate) from Sova. Plus the car. That may not be a suitcase full of diamonds, but it nevertheless allowed Ponta to finance an apartment in one of the fanciest neighborhoods in Bucharest.

Where did Sova’s money come from? Sova himself has been under suspicion for quite some time by the DNA. He is said to have enriched himself by taking over exorbitant contracts involving state controlled companies. The DNA has requested that Sova be arrested.

And he is not the only one with legal problems.

Since 2014, the DNA has launched criminal investigations for corruption against thirteen ministers or ex-ministers, requesting that many of them be arrested.  All were in power under Ponta’s leadership.

Some of them were caught. At the beginning of spring, the parliament lifted the immunity of Finance Minister Darios Valcov (also a Social Democrat). Several expensive paintings were discovered under his bed afterwards. Valcov had apparently been investing the money he gained through corruption in valuable pieces of art.

Former Transport Minister Relu Fenechiu, member of the PNL (who was in a coaltion with the Social Democrats back then, and now back President Klaus Johannis), was arrested at the beginning of 2014. He was the first minister to have been arrested while still holding power.

Ponta’s father-in-law and brother-in-law have also been suspected by the DNA for wrongdoing. And Ponta’s doctoral advisor, Adrian Nastase, who later became Prime Minister of Romania, was the first Prime Minister to be convicted for corruption. His sentence was commuted in the summer of 2014, after two years in prison. Once he was released, Ponta, whose doctoral thesis was relinquished following charges of plagiarism, expressed relief that his old advisor was back with his family.

The illegal actions of many politicians have been exposed, but still others have escaped legal punishment. As did Sova. Despite the fact that the DNA has requested his arrest, the Parliament has refused to lift his legal immunity. And without the approval of the parliament’s deputies, neither Sova’s guilt nor innocence can be determined in the courts. Like the no-man’s land between state borders, Sova walks between imprisonment and liberty. At least for as long as the Parliament chooses to protect him.

Ponta himself does not need to fear the police at this point neither. In his case, the chamber of deputies must as well approve a criminal investigation into his activities. Ponta must sleep well knowing that the Social Democrats, along with their coalition partners, have a comfortable majority in the chamber.

Romania is a country where political ethics don’t count for much.

On Friday Ponta said politics are exercised in the parliament, not the DNA. He refuses to resign as long as the Parliament refrains from forcing him to do so.  This assertion ignited the political showdown between Ponta and the President, Klaus Johannis, who had already asked him to step down. If Johannis wins this fight, the opposition will be in power. When he became president in December, Johannis never hid the fact that he desired new majorities in the parliament. Johannis won the presidency in a surprising victory over Ponta.

But as long as Ponta does not lose the protection of his party and his deputies, justice will prove ineffectual. As it now stands, Ponta can continue to serve as Prime Minister. One can easily imagine what such a figure means for the reputation of the country. A normal, judicial process could determine his guilt or innocence. Without this process, there will always be a stigma attached to him concerning his alleged wrongdoing. It will be difficult for the average Romanian to respect the law when they see how Ponta’s behavior is protected from prosecution, rather than judged through the normal legal process.  When one of Romania’s highest representatives does not participate in the country’s legal system, Romanians will not be encouraged to respect that system.

Regarding foreign affairs, such a government becomes intolerable among European leaders. Given the current geo-political landscape, the west needs a reliable partner on the Black Sea Coast. But if Romania does not present itself as a strong partner, Europe may begin to treat the country with less patience.

It’s hard to say how long Romania’s deputies will continue to support Ponta. Love is given away and taken back quickly in Romanian politics. Like a bird, political loyalty always seeks the biggest bread crumbs – even when those crumbs lie in the court of a political opponent.  Who can even tell whether Sova was the one betraying his old friend?  Some commentators have already begun to ponder this question. Or maybe it’s Ponta desperately saving Sova in the Parliament in order not to make him talk? And who can determine the price of a vote in a parliament in which the majorities have already begun to shift again?

Back in 2012, when Sova publicly denied that the Holocaust occurred in Romania, Ponta bought his friend a plane ticket to Washington so he could visit the Holocaust Museum and take home some valuable historical lessons. Such a ticket is now impossible for Ponta to secure for himself – he, who once promised to govern with the most honorable leaders in the country’s history. It is a promise he has failed to live up to.

Cover photo credit: Mihai Stoice

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Eva Konzett

Eva is an Austrian journalist with the business daily Wirtschaftsblatt. She mostly covers the CEE/SEE-region, and was a correspondent in Romania from 2012-2013. She's written for publications in Austria, Germany, and Romania.