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Romania: Officials Forced To Admit Conflicts Of Interest In Anticorruption Drive

More than 150 Romanian deputies and senators, most of them members of the ruling Social Democratic Party, have admitted to holding jobs or having business interests that come into conflict with their political positions. Under new anticorruption laws, they will have to renounce either their political positions or business dealings. The laws were passed under pressure from Western officials, who have repeatedly warned Romania that widespread corruption seriously hampers the country's chances of becoming a member of the European Union. But critics point to loopholes in the legislation.

Prague, 7 May 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Under a new anticorruption law, almost one-third of Romania's legislators have acknowledged they hold positions or have business dealings that come into conflict with their political mandate.

The law is part of a package of anticorruption measures passed by parliament in March. It required that holders of public office reveal the existence of conflicts of interest by midnight on 5 May.

The legislation stipulates that they choose either their political positions or their business interests within a period of 60 days.

Out of Romania's 140 senators and 344 lower-chamber deputies, some 152 have admitted to conflicts of interest -- more than half of them, that is, 87 legislators, being members of the ruling ex-communist Social Democratic Party.

The shake-up comes amid a recent spate of statements from U.S. and European Union officials who warned Romanian authorities to tackle corruption more seriously unless they want to jeopardize their chances of joining the European Union any time soon.

Jonathan Scheele, the head of the European Commission delegation in Bucharest, told RFE/RL that the anticorruption measures, despite shortcomings, are a step in the right direction -- provided they are put into practice correctly.

"It's undeniably a step forward. I've no doubt that, like any piece of legislation, it could be improved," Scheele said. "But, if implemented properly, it should lead to an improvement in the situation."

Romania, ranked last out of all EU candidate countries in Transparency International's 2003 Corruption Perception Index (CPI), has to tackle endemic corruption in order to join the EU by 2007.

Sara Morante, Transparency International's representative for Southeastern Europe, told RFE/RL that the current government, which came to power in January 2001, initially appeared willing to get involved seriously in the fight against corruption.

Morante said the government invited TI's Romanian branch, along with other nongovernmental organizations, to offer their opinions about the anticorruption measures: "The national chapter in Romania was very open to try to assist any efforts from the government and national institutions also to fight corruption and therefore, together with a couple of other NGOs, they decided to accept the invitation of the present government to join the central anticorruption group that was set up by the executive. The purpose was to give feedback to the government in terms of implementation of the national anticorruption strategy that the government had put together."

But Morante said the public, nongovernmental organizations, and the media were not given enough time to thoroughly assess the legislation, which contains a number of loopholes.

Among its other faults, critics say the measure allows parliamentarians, ministers, and other public office holders to transfer their business interests to relatives.

Investigative journalist Cornel Ivanciuc of the weekly "Academia Catavencu" told RFE/RL that the media has revealed that at least one government official has managed to do just that.

"We already have spotted a case, which has not been included on this list of public persons," Ivanciuc said. "It is Mr. Ion Antonescu, state secretary in the Culture Ministry, who is the well-known owner of the Marshall Travel Agency, and who passed the business on to his son. We know very well that, in fact, it is a trick because it is he who is running the business, and probably the trend will be that these gentlemen pass on their businesses to their relatives."

Analysts also point out that the law does not provide for an authority to rule on potential conflict of interest cases involving the prime minister, nor does it specify sanctions for officials who fail to fill out the required income and asset forms.

They also say the form itself omits real estate owned abroad, as well as foreign deposits of less than 10,000 euros and gifts worth less than 500 euros.

Opposition politicians say the measures will do little to eliminate corruption. Liberal legislator Nicolae Popa told Reuters that the anticorruption laws are what he called "a pure show."

European Commission delegate Scheele admits that much remains to be done to eradicate corruption in Romania. Scheele says the EU is offering a wide range of support to Romanian authorities both in perfecting anticorruption laws and in implementing them.

"Well, certainly, we're working closely with the Ministry of Justice, both in the areas of dealing with cases of corruption through working in a twinning arrangement involving the Spanish special prosecutor's office for corruption offenses," he said. "They are working with the Ministry of Justice and with the anticorruption prosecutor's office here, and they were closely involved in developing the whole concept of the original decision to establish the office. And clearly, there is more to be done in that respect, as well. We are also working with the Romanian government and supporting them through various programs in trying to improve different aspects of legislation, including the whole issue of judicial reform and public administration reform."

In an interesting twist, Romania's chief EU negotiator, Vasile Puscas, was forced under the law to resign his position as director of the Romanian Academy's Institute for Political Studies and International Relations.

However, journalist Ivanciuc remains skeptical about how correctly the new conflict of interest measures will be implemented. Ivanciuc says the speaker of the lower house, Valer Dornean, indicated yesterday that Prime Minister Adrian Nastase may have already agreed to exempt two officials, as yet unnamed, from the law.