Sorin Apostu: The Man who Would be King of Cluj

Looking at some of the cases we covered so far it might seem that Romanian corruption is, like in some western countries, something that happens at the centre, when office holders get tempted by too much power and start making a grab for the public purse. While we have presented some cases of local politicians who get rich off local administration, the cases we have dealt with so far have focused on the larger schemes in Romania. But, as we have previously said, corruption is not simply an ethical slip, but something symptomatic of the wider society.

This is something that many Romanians would agree with. According to a 2002 study, 84% of Romanians were certain that civil servants in the local administration regularly take bribes. Nearly a decade later, another report shows virtually unchanged numbers: 30% of Romanians think local administration is extremely corrupt, 30% that it is very corrupt and 21% that it is merely moderately corrupt. That perception continues today, and many local elected officials, be they County Council Presidents or Mayors aren’t helping. But very few people have had a more damaging effect on their local administration than former Cluj mayor, Sorin Apostu.

Cluj is Romania’s second biggest and second richest city and is powerfully proud of that fact. Cluj natives carry themselves with gravitas, boast a no-nonsense attitude and often look down on people from the South of the country, particularly from a moral standpoint. Yet Cluj has given Romania two of the most absurd local politicians since the fall of Communism. Gheorghe Funar, the ultra-nationalist mayor with a penchant for painting every public surface in the colours of the Romanian flag, would be quite enough even for a large city like Cluj — but add to that mix Sorin Apostu and things get downright embarrassing.

While Apostu is not a Cluj native, his political career is intrinsically tied to the city. Starting his political career late by joining the Democratic Party (PD) in 2000, Apostu found his way to a city council seat in the 2004 elections, a seat he would hold on to after the 2008 elections as well. Apostu became quite close to local party grandee and Cluj mayor Emil Boc during the latter’s stint in office. And when Boc was appointed prime minister by Romania’s president and had to quit the mayor’s office, Apostu was right there to pounce on Boc’s still warm seat. In January 2009, Apostu became acting mayor, and in elections held in February 2009, he won with an impressive 60% of the vote, after an endorsement on the still incredibly popular Boc.

Apostu did not waste time in securing his new fiefdom. And as local corruption was (and still is) a growing industry, Apostu made room for family and friends. Apostu built around him a regular cartel of shady businessmen, or what anti-corruption authorities call a “organized crime group”, whose business it was to siphon money into the mayor’s hands from people looking to do business in Cluj. The deals were struck by quite a few friendly businessmen who acted as intermediaries and paid the ‘usual’ 10% tax on behalf of their peers by signing ‘consulting’ contracts with Apostu’s wife, who would helpfully call those behind on their dues to remind them of the overdue state of their “monthly installment”. Of course, managing such a network without getting picked up by anticorruption prosecutors was not easy, which is why Apostu had a stockpile of no less than 17 different phones. Apostu was sure that his former boss and friend, Prime-Minister Boc would have his back so he started making bank fast.

Apostu was not casual about his bribe taking, being quite adept at the phone conversation paranoia that is a basic survival skill as a corrupt Romanian politician. His middlemen, however, were less careful as DNA transcripts show. Călin Stoia, one of Apostu’s closest ‘collaborators’ was talking in the open about his access to the corridors of power. In fact Stoia gave us one of the most memorable lines in the history of Romanian anticorruption, a phrase that will stay with us long past the moment when both Apostu and Stoia are forgotten: “I won’t even get out of bed for €100,000”. Perhaps if Apostu had followed this advice, we would have fewer humorous anecdotes about the man, as it was a 50,000 bribe from watermelon salesmen looking to sell their wares in Cluj unmolested by the authorities that sunk the mayor’s career.

Of course, such blatant acts of corruption could not stay hidden from the authorities long. So it was that in November 2011 the DNA indicted Apostu, his wife and all his business partners, including Călin Stoia, for continuous bribe-taking. Even the Democratic Liberal Party, Apostu’s political alma mater, ignored any pleas of aid from this particularly corrupt politician and three years later Apostu and the gang had been sentenced. For his part Apostu, got 4 years and six months imprisonment.

In 201,6 Apostu was released and the ex-mayor, obviously still in possession of some of his illicit bought himself a new car as a “graduation” gift. But the sheer scale of Apostu misdeeds would all but ensure that the trials never stop. Soon after his release, a new DNA case was simmering in the pot for Sorin Apostu. This one takes us even further back, when he (then a mere civil servant) was asking for a monthly payment of €850 for facilitating contracts. Apostu proves once again that the 80% of Romanians who think local administrators are corrupt, are, as always, right.