Who’s afraid of the DNA? (1)

The HQ of the DNA in Bucharest

Most corruption cases in Romania have something in common — they are investigated and sent to court by the National Anticorruption Directorate (DNA). While the fight against corruption did not begin with this institution, the DNA has gradually become a symbol of democracy, the rule of law, and institutional checks and balances in Romania. Such a symbol couldn’t last for long, however. The DNA is now being targeted for destruction by a government of grafters who do their very best to weaken the power of Justice, in order to avoid being sent to prison, have their illegal wealth impounded or, worst of all, to make space for new figures that might interfere with their democratically skewed, but personally profitable, modus operandi.

The DNA is a department of public prosecution attached to the Romanian High Court of Cassation and Justice and specialised in fighting and preventing high and mid-level corruption cases that have caused damages in excess of €200,000 or that deal with goods or amounts of money worth more than €10,000. It is an independent entity in relation to the courts and the departments of prosecution attached to each of them, as well as other public authorities, and it was inspired by a model used in several other European countries, such as Spain, Norway, Belgium or Croatia. According to its website, “corruption at all levels is encouraged when the corrupt who own certain levers of power have the impression that they are above the law, that they are untouchable, and that society does not have sufficiently effective resources to prove their criminal activities and hold them accountable. A specialised, independent, and resource-rich institution is needed to fight against white-collar crime. The specialised institution’s tangible results in fighting against high-level corruption are meant to discourage corruption at all levels.”

The beginnings

It might not come as a surprise that the DNA was not founded voluntarily by Romanian politicians. Its creation was more of a good-will token to be shown to the European Union in order to convince them that Romania, which at the time was working towards meeting the conditions for EU membership, was truly committed to weeding out corruption and to strengthening its much-maligned judiciary.

When the Adrian Nastase government created the DNA in 2002, under the now-defunct name The National Anticorruption Prosecution Office (PNA), the institution was meant to wield no real power in pursuing high-profile cases. This became obvious when the first Head of the PNA, Ovidiu Budusan, began investigating the embezzlement of Bancorex, a state bank whose bankruptcy caused damages to the state in excess of $2 billion, the equivalent of 8% of Romania’s GDP at the time. He managed to get the former President of the bank arrested and sent to court for having granted huge loans that were never returned to individuals and companies made up of individuals who held high political or business positions. However, no conviction followed. 90% of the cases the PNA investigated were never sent to court.

Worse still, when PNA prosecutors dared to go after the big shots, they received death threats, sued, or thrown out of the legal profession altogether. For instance, while investigating the Bancorex case, Budusan found a connection between one of the Bancorex illegal loan beneficiaries and Ion Iliescu, the former President and a well-known Communist political leader before the Revolution. He still held enormous power in the country, especially since his party, the Social-Democratic Party (PSD), was in power at the time. It appeared that the businessman Adrian Costea had donated Bancorex money to Ion Iliescu’s electoral campaigns, and he had done so from France, even though financing electoral campaigns from outside the country was illegal. Budusan subpoenaed Iliescu, forcing him to show up in court, which the former President deemed unacceptable. As a result, Budusan was drowned in paperwork and eventually forced to resign. Another prosecutor, Cristian Panait, was threatened and hounded until he took his own life, while Budusan’s partner was demoted and chose to never speak about his PNA days again.

An unlikely Renaissance

Existing legislation at the time didn’t support anticorruption efforts because it didn’t give prosecutors the tools they needed in order to investigate high-profile cases as opposed to regular public servants such as teachers or office clerks. The first step was passing Law 78, the Law for the prevention, disclosure and punishment of corruption acts, in May 2000. This law forced all public servants to submit wealth statements, and defined corruption acts and the respective punishments for each of them. (Law 78 also enabled the creation of a specialised institution for fighting against low-level corruption and organised crime (DIICOT)).

However, not much changed until 2005, when then-Minister of Justice Monica Macovei — heralded as the poster woman for the fight against corruption in Romania — passed legislation that would become critical for the DNA’s success. This included laws that reformed the judiciary (the status and role of prosecutors, the court structure and organisation, the role of the High Council of Judges); Law 90/2005, according to which any former minister could be investigated based on common law, without a preliminary Parliamentary approval; and the law which created the National Integrity Agency, in charge of checking politicians’ fortunes.

The last major changes in the current evolution of the anticorruption institution happened in 2006. What had been until then the National Anticorruption Department became the National Anticorruption Directorate, and its chief prosecutors was officially subordinated to Romania’s attorney general. At the same time, the way that top DNA officials were named was changed. The Minister of Justice would submit proposals, obtain the High Council of Judges’ approval, and be validated through a presidential decree. These new institutional levers eventually led to the appointment of the current Head of the DNA, Laura Codruta Kovesi, and to thousands of high-level investigations and convictions.