Romania: powerful local “baron” removed from office following corruption verdict

Romania: powerful local “baron” removed from office following corruption verdict

 

By Daniel Stroe – Bucharest

A three time head of a county council in Romania has been today removed from office by order of the prefect following a final verdict given by a court in a corruption case, confirming an upward trend in the anti-corruption fight despite recent political attempts to rein it.

Constantin Nicolescu(photo), head of the Arges County council, was dismissed this morning after an order signed by the county prefect, Cristian Soare. The decision comes after a final verdict passed on 11 February by the High Court of Justice and Cassation which found Nicolescu in conflict of interests, following a complaint lodged by the National Integrity Agency (ANI), the independent body which checks Romanian officials’ assets.

Nicolescu is one of the influential so-called “local barons”, leaders in the province who pull the strings and have a big say in governmental affairs. Nicolescu is a member of the social-democratic party led by PM Victor Ponta, the senior party in the ruling coalition in Bucharest, reportedly led from the shadow by the “local barons”.

The court found Nicolescu incompatible with the office he had held for three terms now after he signed, as head of the country council, of 14 contracts, amounting to 252,000 Euros, with various companies where he or his wife was a major stakeholder.

The law bans heads of county councils from closing deals with companies where their family or relatives up to the fourth degree are involved. Moreover, Nicolescu was in November 2013, sentenced to more than three years in prison in a case in which he is charged with accessing 900,000 Phare funds for four schools with false documentation. The sentence is not final yet.

Nicolescu was first arrested in January 2011, but he fell sick in court and was taken to the hospital where he underwent a heart surgery. Following his health condition, the judges banned him from leaving the country until the final verdict was passed two weeks ago.

Nicolescu’s case is another triumph of the anti-corruption institutions and is just the latest from a series of high level sentences which culminated early this year with the second imprisonment of former Romanian PM, Adrian Nastase (2000-2004), for corruption. But the hurdles are enormous for the state agencies fighting corruption.

Lawmakers tried to put a leash on the anti-corruption agencies last December when they sought to amend the Penal Code and shield themselves from corruption charges, a move that drew the ire of the civil society and the West. The new Penal Code that went into force on 1 February allows phone tapping of a corruption suspect only after he is informed he is under criminal investigation, which prosecutors say dramatically reduces chances of raising evidence.

Last week, another lawmaker wanted for corruption was protected from arrest by the vote of his fellow MPs, a procedure which has raised many eyebrows and left many wondering if all citizens in Romania are equal before the law.