Romanian Corruption-Buster Says EU Shouldn't Let Up on Graft

(Bloomberg) -- Romania’s top anti-corruption prosecutor says the European Union should keep monitoring her country’s progress in fighting graft as politicians repeatedly try to weaken penalties.

Laura Codruta Kovesi, who’s helped send more than 60 high-ranking officials to trial or prison in the past five years, says there’s a danger that important reforms will be reversed if the government gets the Monitoring and Verification Mechanism lifted. Her successes have made her a target. President Klaus Iohannis stepped in last week to stop an attempt by the justice minister to fire her.

“The mechanism has been a very useful tool,” Kovesi said Thursday in an interview in her office in Bucharest. “It should be maintained because one of the conditions refers to the way certain laws are approved or applied, and we see lately that the desire to change certain pieces of legislation and decriminalize certain offenses is getting bigger.”

Recent years have seen unprecedented efforts to tackle corruption in the NATO member of 20 million people. The crackdown is part of a push to integrate deeper into the EU by joining the passport-free Schengen area. Plans to decriminalize abuse-of-office offenses last year prompted the biggest protests since communism collapsed. Eastern European nations including Poland have also triggered unrest by seeking more sway over the justice system.

Romania ranks 59th of 180 countries in Transparency International’s annual index of corruption perceptions. It’s the third-worst in the EU, above only Hungary and Bulgaria. European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said in 2016 that EU monitoring of Romania’s judiciary should end.

Not Intimidated

Unperturbed by repeated warnings from the EU, the ruling Social Democrats are pushing ahead with initiatives to remould criminal legislation. Parliament on Wednesday approved a bill allowing citizens who’ve been sentenced to prison terms for non-violent crimes to serve part or all of their sentence under house arrest. Debates on other controversial changes are due to start next week.

Vice President Frans Timmermans has urged Romania to avoid taking any backward steps that could prevent the lifting of the surveillance mechanism by 2019. Social Democrat leader Liviu Dragnea, who’s already been handed a two-year suspended sentence for electoral fraud and is under investigation in separate corruption cases, says the judiciary-law changes may be approved by June. He denies all wrongdoing.

Kovesi reiterated her determination to continue the fight, insisting attacks by politicians or people who’ve been convicted haven’t “intimidated” her or her fellow graft-busters.

“The desire is to intimidate, and not only me or the anti-corruption prosecutors, but the entire justice system,” she said.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.