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Interview: Laura Codruta Koevesi: The Bête Noire Of Romanian Corruption

Laura Codruta Koevesi put dozens of Romanian politicians and officials behind bars.
Laura Codruta Koevesi put dozens of Romanian politicians and officials behind bars.

Sitting in a Bucharest restaurant, Romanian prosecutor Laura Codruta Koevesi is joking about her high-tech fitness watch, which prods her to start moving when she's been sitting too long.

Some journalists in Romania, she says, had speculated that the watch connected her directly to the CIA, a jibe based on the support the anticorruption agency she ran received from U.S. and Western officials.

Dressed in a perfectly pressed cotton blouse, Koevesi, who has just turned 46, has something of a high-schooler about her -- but her manner belies her reputation and notoriety.

As Romania's chief anticorruption prosecutor, Koevesi put dozens of Romanian politicians and officials behind bars. Ousted by the government last year and relegated to a strategy job, she's now waiting to hear whether she will land a job in Brussels as Europe's top prosecutor charged with investigating cross-border European Union fund and sales-tax fraud.

The other front-runner to head the newly created European Public Prosecutor's Office, Jean-Francois Bohnert, a French attorney general, is backed by his government. However, Romania's Social Democrat-led coalition government, and in particular Tudorel Toader, the former justice minister, have moved to block Koevesi from taking the newly created post, due to become operational at the end of 2020.

Toader has said he wrote to all EU justice ministers to detail why she was dismissed from the anticorruption agency, while this week European Parliament lawmaker Renate Weber, of the ALDE junior partner in the governing coalition, said in an interview that Bohnert was the better candidate for the job.

Thorn In Officialdom's Side

In 2006, at the age of 33, Koevesi became Romania's first-ever female prosecutor-general and served two terms in office. In 2013, she was appointed chief prosecutor of the National Anticorruption Directorate (DNA), where she won plaudits from the EU, the United States, and thousands of Romanians, who admired her tough approach to graft. Even though her government opposes her, Koevesi tells RFE/RL she is heartened by the support of "thousands and thousands of honest people."

"In five years, over 50 people with high-ranking positions were convicted," she says. "Senators, deputies, ministers, former ministers were sent to trial and some were convicted."

The number is actually higher: sixty-eight high-level functionaries, including 14 ministers, 39 deputies, 14 senators, and one European Parliament lawmaker. Among those was a sitting prime minister, who was eventually acquitted, and a former prime minister. Under Koevesi's supervision, she says some 1,000 people were sent to trial and about 900 people were convicted by courts every year.

While her record was praised by many, it drew the ire of Romanian politicians, some of whom had been targeted by anticorruption probes. Ruling-party politicians and pro-government media charged that Koevesi was part of the so-called "parallel state," a shadowy antigovernment structure aiming to take power. Critics said she went after cases with high media impact and that prosecutors subordinated to her had fabricated evidence. They charged that her conviction rate was suspiciously high and her methods were dubious, for instance the way suspects were paraded handcuffed in front of cameras before being found guilty.

After continuing pressure, in July 2018 Koevesi was removed from the post on a raft of government charges, including alleged mismanagement and overstepping her authority. She was also singled out for allegedly besmirching the country's image by giving interviews to foreign media.

Since they came to power in 2016, the Social Democrats and their allies have embarked on a contentious judicial overhaul, which has sparked the biggest protests since the 1989 overthrow of communism. Critics, including fellow EU states and the United States, say the changes will thwart efforts to root out corruption in one of the EU's most graft-ridden states.

Koevesi speaks about "a campaign of intimidation and harassment over the last two years," against prosecutors and judges, which had "a discouraging effect on the justice system because it seems that everyone who did something and had results then faced disciplinary action, or they had criminal cases [launched] against them."

Amid the legal changes under the Social Democrat-led coalition, corruption watchdog Transparency International's 2018 index downgraded Romania to the 61st least corrupt country in the world, down from 57th place the year before. Only EU members Hungary, Greece, and Bulgaria are rated as more corrupt.

"We have seen recently that there is a tendency for...things to change. For sure everyone has seen the attack on the criminal legislation and on the criminal process. The justice laws were changed, and there are intentions to change the Criminal Code and the Criminal Procedural Code," Kovesi says.

'Transylvanian Calm'

In person, Koevesi exudes determination, occasional flashes of mischief, and above all, calm. Brought up in the small Transylvanian town of Medias, the former basketball player followed in the footsteps of her late father, who was also a prosecutor. Whether by choice or nature, she is a good example of what Romanians call the "Transylvanian calm," an unruffled approach to life and its problems.

On the day she left her post, Koevesi delivered an address live on television flanked by fellow prosecutors. "Corruption can be defeated," she told the nation. "Do not abandon [the fight]. After five years, one month, and 24 days in office, I can tell you that nothing can be put in balance with the need to further fight corruption."

Koevesi remains a symbol of the antigraft fight beyond Romania, yet perhaps mindful of the criticism she has received, she chooses her words carefully when speaking to a foreign journalist, avoiding anything outside her remit and skirting subjects that could be construed as a personal opinion.

The fact that she's even allowed to speak to the media is a bonus. In April, she was indicted for abuse of office, bribery, and giving false testimony by a special unit tasked with investigating magistrates, a move critics said was politically motivated. She called the charges "fabrications." She was banned from talking to journalists and leaving the country but appealed the ruling and won. Koevesi secured a further victory with a ruling made public on May 16, when Romania's top court dismissed the case against her, saying that the charges lacked "precision, clarity," and evidence to support them.

She defends her record at the DNA. "Of course, I made mistakes, but I never broke the law intentionally and I didn't commit disciplinary errors," she says. "Perhaps one of my mistakes was that I should have communicated more, to explain certain things."

Even stauncher is her defense of secret protocols between the DNA and Romania's Intelligence Service, which were controversially used to snare corruption suspects. Romania's government claims the methods were reminiscent of the country's dreaded communist-era secret police, the Securitate, which kept tabs on Romanians with its tentacles in all walks of life. In January, Romania's Constitutional Court ruled that the protocols were illegal.

"It was an instrument that was absolutely necessary at that moment. People forget that in 2009, no prosecutor in Romania was allowed to get legal authorization to intercept [anyone]. You were obliged to send an authorization to the Romanian Intelligence Service," she says, referring to the only Romanian agency authorized to carry out surveillance. Before the protocols, the DNA had to inform the intelligence services they wanted a wiretap -- and each case would be separately approved. "In order to have strict checks on this activity, these protocols were signed."

'Corruption Can Be Defeated'

As much as the government wishes corruption and the rule of law would disappear from the narrative about Romania, it's a topic regularly raised by foreign politicians. The European Commission has recently threatened to take legal action against Romania unless it reverses moves to limit the independence of its courts and hinder the fight against corruption. On May 10, the European Commission sent a warning letter to Romania's government.

Romanians will soon vote in a referendum on anticorruption issues asking people whether there should be a ban on the use of amnesty or pardon for corruption convicts and a ban on the use of emergency ordinances in laws related to justice reform. The May 26 vote will coincide with European Parliament elections. Koevesi won't comment on the referendum but says she will vote.

Stuck in a job dealing with Romania's anticorruption strategy, and with nobody to prosecute, Koevesi is too polite to say whether she finds her daily work less than stimulating after her previous positions. But it's clear her mind is on the next top job.

"I came out first both times [in the application process], in the technical commission interview, and in the European Parliament [committee votes]. It was an open, transparent procedure, which anyone could follow," she says. The chief prosecutor of the European Public Prosecutor's Office is named by consensus between the European Parliament and the European Council. The European Council member states opted for rival Bohnert in a secret ballot resulting in a deadlock.

She suggests that she and Bohnert have complementary skills and would make a "winning team," adding that without her government's support, she is unlikely to be able to hold the post of deputy. A decision will be made after the new European Parliament is elected, after May 26. Koevesi recently got an extra boost from European Parliament President Antonio Tajani, who said the decision to back her "was not revocable."

And as for Romania's anticorruption fight?

"If prosecutors continue what we started together or they don't continue, this is entirely up to them. It is too soon from my point of view to give a definitive answer," she says, adding that her message to prosecutors was "the same thing I always told them [and] what I told them when I ended my mandate. Don't abandon the fight. Continue to do your job. Corruption can be defeated."