By Daniel Stroe – Bucharest
A corruption investigation targeting Viorel Hrebenciuc, one of the main pillars of the ruling social-democrat party (PSD), the largest party in post-communist Romania, and the arrest of his son have sent shockwaves across the political spectrum, just weeks before the presidential elections early November.
Hrebenciuc, seen as the behind the curtain chief strategist of PSD, resigned this week from the Romanian Parliament amid the corruption investigation, probably under pressure not to affects his boss, PM Victor Ponta’s chances in next month’s poll where he is a favorite.
The National Anti-Corruption Department (DNA) had asked the Chamber of Deputies to lift Viorel Hrebenciuc and Ioan Adam’s immunities following an investigation into illegal forests retrocession which caused 304 M Euros damage. Ioan Adam is considered the head of the crime group which ended in illegally distributing 43,000 hectares of woods in Bacau County, in eastern Romania. DNA argued the two lawmakers have to be arrested lest they can influence witnesses.
Viorel Hrebenciuc is accused of having used his influence to obtain retrocession for alleged heirs. The DNA prosecutors had also intercepted Hrebenciuc’s phone calls in which he was negotiating a law on amnesty with another high ranking PSD member, following the debut of investigation. The former lawmaker was thus hoping to evade a prison term in one of the most important anti-corruption investigation in post-communist Romania. In exchange for support for an amnesty law, he said he would use his influence to put his protégées at the helm of the party. If Ponta, the head of PSD, wins the presidential elections next month, the party job will be vacant and open for competition among the social-democrat leaders.
But the real blow to Hrebenciuc came when prosecutors decided yesterday to arrest his son, Andrei, for 30 days, along Paltin Sturza, the main beneficiary of the 43,000 hectares of forests. Andrei Hrebenciuc is charged with forming an organized crime group, complicity to peddling of influence and money laundry, in other words, he assisted his father, the main actor in this entire corruption file, to attain the goal of illegally putting Sturza in the possession of the woods. Andrei Hrebenciuc is said to have played his role in this deal through an off-shore company based in Cyprus. Prosecutors revealed an entire network of officials, magistrates and politicians involved in this huge corruption file.
The case sparked fear among fellow social-democrats, already envisaged by tens of anti-corruption investigations since the beginning of the year. The party seems to have been shaken to the ground by these investigations, with more pressure exerted on Ponta to bring the justice system under control. But the PM knows very well such a desiderate is almost impossible to fulfill since the West is very sensitive about any sort of political attacks against justice and is trying to assuage his party members’ fears until the elections are held. But PSD is already gripped by internal fighting, with many preparing for the after-Ponta era, assuming the latter would become Romania’s next resident. Three members that were allegedly negotiating taking over the first job in the party were suspended this week as a warning the party members should focus on the electoral campaign, rather than personal interests.
“It’s not me the target, but the presidential candidate”, Viorel Hrebenciuc said of the anti-corruption investigation. “I am not the target, everybody loves me”, PM Ponta reacted. But weeks after revelations he may have worked for a Romanian intelligence service while being a prosecutor, which is illegal in Romania, the Hrebenciuc file puts extra burden on Ponta’s shoulders. Other key members of the party are also in the crosshairs of the anti-corruption prosecutors in what is seen as the largest corruption investigation in post-communist Romania, the so-called Microsoftgate, in which former ministers are accused of illegally acquiring software licenses.
The good news, apart from the anti-corruption authorities’ impetus, is that the woods illegal retrocession file in which Hrebenciuc is involved started from an honest employee of the state owned Romsilva, the forest agency, who refused to obey political orders and become a link in the corruption chain that would have deprived the state of 43,000 hectares of woods. He and other colleagues checked archives to prove Paltin Sturza was not the legal heir of the woods at issue, but some of them were quickly removed after their own “investigation” surfaced. Their endeavor reached the prosecutors though and the whole corruption network collapsed.
Even though many are tempted to link these large scale investigations to the electoral campaign, it is easy to notice justice started removing all the political strings attached to it as far back as two years ago and it has continuously developed the momentum, reaching politicians which have been seen as untouchable. With Brussels and Washington eager to clear Romania’s own yard, especially amid turbulences in the region, justice may have embarked upon an irreversible trend of independence from the political factor, but a broader picture could be drawn after the elections next month.