Head of National Anti corruption Department (DNA), Laura Codruta Kovesi. (Source: Bloomberg)

A Showdown Looms in Europe’s Most Corrupt Region

(Bloomberg) -- She’s rarely alone, but she cuts a lonely figure in the most corrupt part of Europe.

Romania’s chief anti-corruption prosecutor, Laura Codruta Kovesi, has investigated 60 top-ranking officials, including a prime minister, and more than 40 lawmakers and other wealthy Romanians over the past four years. Now her biggest moment is coming: a showdown with the man in charge.

Liviu Dragnea, the leader of the governing Social Democratic Party, effectively pulls the strings in Romania. He faces another round of charges of alleged misconduct and Kovesi’s office is preparing a case. Dragnea said it’s a witch-hunt against him and his party, and supports the justice minister’s plan to remove Kovesi. They allege her prosecutors have exceeded their authority and undermined the government.

Kovesi’s crusade, a solo effort in a part of the world where independent judiciaries have been compromised, so far led to the seizure of at least 2 billion euros ($2.4 billion) of assets. It also made her a household name in Romania, with admirers regularly stopping her on the street in Bucharest as her security detail accompanies her home.

Not surprisingly, Kovesi has come under regular attack. She’s kept her job running the National Anti-Corruption Directorate thanks to the backing from the president, an opponent of Dragnea. The next few months will be the biggest test of where Romania is headed after a year marked by protests against corruption across former communist Europe.

“The desire is to intimidate, and not only me or the anti-corruption prosecutors, but the entire justice system,” Kovesi, 44, dressed in black, said in an interview late last month in her office. “The intensity of these attacks shows us that we are on the right path.”

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Transparency International puts Romania 59th out of 180 in its latest annual Corruption Perceptions Index, better than only neighbors Bulgaria and Hungary in the European Union and the same level as Greece.

Dragnea was handed a two-year suspended sentence in 2016 for electoral fraud and is under investigation in other corruption cases. He denies all wrongdoing. He is barred from becoming premier, though consolidated power since winning elections the year he was convicted.

The 55-year old engineer considers the sentence as “unfair and politically driven” and says he’s the victim of what he calls “the deep state.” He also denies wrongdoing in the pending investigation into EU funds when he was a local leader in the Teleorman county, one of Romania's poorest regions.

Kovesi, though, has the public onside. Plans by the government to decriminalize abuse-of-office offenses last year prompted the biggest protests since communism collapsed. Protesters took to streets again this year when efforts to oust Kovesi resurfaced.

A native of Transylvania, Kovesi had a devout upbringing – her office is adorned with Christian icons – in one of the most oppressive regimes in the old eastern bloc. Kovesi was 16 years old when former President Nicolae Ceausescu was ousted and shot dead by firing squad in 1989.

She recalled reading books in candlelight when electricity was scarce and wearing layers of clothing at school to brace the cold. Six-foot-tall and a high-level basketball player, she graduated from law school in 1995 before following her father in becoming a prosecutor. On her first day, she remembers being told it was no role for a woman.

Her tenure as the first female head of the anti-corruption authority and its 330 staffers ends next year. What happens after that will depend on how determined the Dragnea-controlled government is to oust her.

For now, she walks home, trailed by her security, to deal with the frustrations that come with the job. At least she has support, she said.

“A few years ago people were reluctant to submit a complaint,” she said. “Now people volunteer to help us.”

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.

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