AP Interview: Romanian pol says graft fight has gone too far
BUCHAREST, Romania (AP) — Romania’s most powerful politician, barred from becoming prime minister due to a corruption conviction, accused anti-corruption prosecutors Thursday of indiscriminately targeting high-level officials and ruining careers in the process.
Liviu Dragnea, leader of Romania’s ruling Social Democratic Party, told The Associated Press in an interview that after years of politicians getting away with graft, he thinks Romania’s anti-corruption agency has gone too far in pursuing government officials accused of accepting bribes, embezzlement and other official misdeeds
“There was a period of many years when usually whoever was in power was not investigated,” Dragnea said in the interview, his first with foreign media since the Social Democrats won the 2016 election. “We went to the other extreme, where those who are in the political class all should be accused, followed, investigated, and sent to trial.”
Eight months before his party’s victory, Dragnea was convicted of vote-rigging during a failed 2012 referendum to oust President Traian Basescu. He denies wrongdoing. His criminal record prevents him from becoming prime minister without a change in election law.
Romanian prosecutors also have charged Dragnea, 55, with embezzling European Union funds and official misconduct in a separate case. He told the AP he would fight to prove his innocence “until the end.”
Another conviction would keep any ambition to be prime minister off the table, but he still would be eligible to run for president. Romania has a presidential election scheduled for 2019. In the AP interview, Dragnea declined to speculate on his possible candidacy.
In accusing the Romanian anti-corruption agency of overreaching, Dragnea mentioned two senior magistrates who were suspended from their jobs on suspicion of accepting bribes. Four years later, they were declared innocent.
“Who will give (them) those years back?” he asked.
Dragnea said he thinks Romania will slowly find “a correct, legal, constitutional approach” to fighting corruption. However, the Romanian government under the Social Democrats has met disapproval at home and from outside for a judicial overhaul that critics say opens the door to more corruption.
Two months after the party assumed power, Parliament started approving legislation widely viewed as intended to weaken the anti-corruption efforts. One measure would restrict public statements about corruption probes. Another would allow suspects in official misconduct cases to be present when whistleblowers make allegations.
The proposals sparked the biggest protests in Romania since the overthrow of communism and drew criticism from the European Union and Washington.
Dragnea says the EU and diplomats have reviewed the laws and concluded they “do not affect the independence of the justice system.”
Dragnea insisted his party is “Europhile,” supportive of the EU concept. At the same time, he said Romania and other eastern European members are “concerned and preoccupied” about a “two-speed” Europe that leaves poorer nations behind while wealthier ones benefit.
He said that Romanians should not forget the benefits and funds that come with EU membership.
“At the same time, for us it is important that the principle of cohesion” is respected and for “differences of development” to “not be accentuated but diminished,” Dragnea said.
Noting that Romania’s eastern border also is the eastern boundary of the EU, he called on NATO to beef up security in the region and consider the Black Sea “a zone of maximum strategic importance.”
Dragnea said he supported U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to re-impose sanctions on Iran since “the United States could not withdraw from this agreement without having very serious information.”
He said criticism from European powers such as Britain, France and Germany were “possibly hasty reactions.”
“The situation in the Middle East is ... complex,” he said. “Some know (it ) completely, some think they know it and others don’t understand it.”
Dragnea supported a recent government proposal to relocate the Romanian Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. President Klaus Iohannis, who is in charge of foreign policy, said more discussion was needed.